By Kathy Day
Being named one of Ernst & Young’s 2012 Entrepreneurs of the Year took RSF’s Dr. Arthur Gruen by surprise, but now the CEO of Solana Beach-based EA Health says he is using the experience to make the company’s mission more concise. (Gruen won the Ernst & Young honor in the Life Sciences & Health Care category.)
And, while he had a bit of an adjustment to being one of six San Diego honorees, he’s now looking forward to the national competition, he said.
An emergency medicine and trauma physician by training who also is medical director and chief of emergency services at Sharp Memorial Hospital, Gruen outlined that mission in a recent interview: To become the worldwide healthcare safety net solution for physician shortages and to improve the health of the world community.
It is how the company is doing that, he said, that sets EA Health apart. The concept took root in his kitchen where he set up a system to guarantee payments to on-call doctors and he founded the company in 2002.
“I knew I needed to do this my first day out of my residency,” the 51-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident said. His epiphany came when a “drunk, homeless guy” who had fallen and hit his head and had bleeding on his brain came into the emergency room.
“I called the neurologist on call whose first question was ‘What’s his insurance status?’” Gruen recalled, adding that the specialist told him to “drill the hole (to relieve the pressure) yourself … I knew then I had to do this.”
The system encourages doctors to take calls, who are not legally obligated to do so, because they know they will be paid and won’t have to fight for their money, Gruen said. EA works with insurance companies and the hospitals to collect payment and assures the physicians they will be paid on the 25th of each month for services rendered.
“We’re kind of like Robin Hood, trying to get the money back to the people who provide the care,” he said.
From its start working with Sharp, the company – with a puzzle piece as its logo — has grown into a nationwide company working with 8,800 doctors and is second only to Kaiser Permanente in terms of medical groups that manage, staff, schedule, code, bill, collect and pay its physicians, Gruen said.
Now in 41 states and five African countries and the Philippines, they are finalizing arrangements in Brazil and hope to expand beyond that and to reach into rural America.
Along the way – and with a team that Gruen credits for the company’s success – they have developed proprietary information technology that enables their systems to work. EA also has established partnerships with other companies, including Carmel Valley-based AMN Healthcare, to extend its services by connecting with AMN’s network of temporary physicians.
Gruen and his team also developed a telemedicine company, EA Telehealth. It is that company which he sees solving the physician shortage through making physicians available around the world through remote services.
“We can ‘beam’ doctors to distant places using robots and communication,” he said. Beyond that, the technology can be applied in the air, on ships and oil rigs, and even in prisons.
“Think of it as a doctor-type Skype,” he said. Then, he added, the “ultimate frontier will be enabling healthcare access into the home. … Marcus Welby is back.”
The smiling and energetic father of four says the concept culminates in the company’s branding – “EA is everywhere healthcare needs to be, anytime.”
Gruen learned about entrepreneurship while being raised by his grandfather, who founded Jensen Industries and took it to the NYSE.
Gruen told of being dressed in a “little suit and bow tie” and being taken to board meetings and business trips around the world.
“He was the ultimate entrepreneur,” he said. “I was born with that gene.”
He attended Harvard University where he played tennis and at one point was nationally ranked. While earning his degree in physics, he studied under a Nobel Prize winner who asked him to join the Harvard faculty, but Gruen said he decided to “go to medical school to change the world.”
Later, he added, “I discovered becoming a doctor was incredibly rewarding, but you can only help people one at a time. With EA Health, we can help the world.”
He not only started his company with an idea based on personal experience, but an observation during his residency at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center helped him see the need for a device that he says is now “on every ambulance, operating room and surgical center on earth.”
After watching a procedure where a metal laryngoscope was used to clear an airway for a patient, which Gruen said he found “barbaric,” he said to his co-workers, “We’ve got to do something better.”
So he invented and patented a plastic laryngoscope. It was funds from that invention, a prototype of which hangs on his office wall, which enabled him to finance EA Health in its early stages.
And while his commitments to the company and its new ventures and his continuing role at Sharp keep him on the go, his real passions in his life are his children.
Three of them are in college, with son Sean working in EA’s billing department as an intern this summer, and the youngest a sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy.
“They are my greatest achievement, hands down,” he said, proudly adding that as the children were growing up he coached every one of their teams.
Recently, Sean joined him on a trip to Wimbledon, where they saw Roger Federer — the eventual winner who has been called the greatest men’s tennis player of all time — win his quarterfinal match.
“I crossed that one off my bucket list,” Gruen said.
But the trip was made more memorable by the man they sat next to on the plane from San Diego to London — Rod Laver, added Gruen, who still can be found on the court a couple of times a week. (Laver, the Australian great, lives in Carlsbad.)
While Gruen let an easygoing spirit show while talking about his trip and his children, he shifted to a more serious note as the conversation moved back to the company.
He’s not afraid to say that EA Health is “disruptive” to healthcare because they provide benefits for patients, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers. And he’s proud to say it is also “altruistic and humanitarian” in its effort to improve worldwide health.
The company’s sense of social responsibility is evident within the company as well, he added, noting that they sponsor food drives, work with Meals on Wheels and adopt families at the holidays. They also have extensive green initiatives and a wellness program for employees.
And that combination of a company with a mission that is both humanitarian and makes money may be a reason Gruen thinks he was named one of San Diego’s top six entrepreneurs.
He went from thinking “no way” could he win to calling the honor the highlight of his career and one that is opening doors for his company.
Learn more about EA Health and its team at www.eahealthcorp.com/