Under the Microscope: PathologyWatch Cofounder April Larson Comes by Love of Health Care Naturally
The business world is full of entrepreneurs from all fields putting a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the success of their enterprises. Few of them, however, can literally lay claim to having more skin in the game than Dr. April Larson at PathologyWatch, the Salt Lake City-based company revolutionizing how dermatologists do business.
As a board-certified dermatologist, Larson isn’t just a cofounder at PathologyWatch: She was also their first client. Once she saw the more perfect union between practice and pathology, embracing the company’s mission to preserve and extend life for patients while reducing the cost of healthcare became an easy sell.
PathologyWatch’s business model puts patient care under a microscope. Participating dermatologists send tissue samples to the lab, which processes and digitizes the slides. Digital pathology slides are then provided to a team of highly qualified dermatopathologists for their diagnosis. Gone are the days of sending physical slides to a pathologist—along with the inherent built-in waiting-for-results delays in the process.
What used to take days or weeks can now be accomplished in much less time, making speed and precision true market differentiators for PathologyWatch.
“PathologyWatch brings a very unique aspect to dermatopathology,” Larson says. “We’re one of the first companies to have provided digital pathology to the dermatologist and the dermatology patients. I think a lot of companies have been totally focused on the pathologist, where we are also heavily focused on the end user and the end client experiences, which is ultimately dermatologists and their patients.”
We had the chance to sit with Dr. Larson to learn more about where she draws inspiration: her upbringing, her colleagues, and her clients.
Medicine in Her Blood
For as long as she can recall, Larson, who grew up in San Diego, California, as the eighth of 11 children, wanted to be involved in medicine. Her father was a surgeon and always encouraged her educational opportunities and desire to help others through health services of some kind.
“I think I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. From the time I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor,” says Larson. “I was very close with my father, and I just admired him so much and loved what he did. Medicine is really unique in that you can use your knowledge and education in a compassionate way that brings in both personalities—combining practical knowledge with a compassionate and loving approach. That’s what I love about working with my patients: I’m able to bring that combination to help them with their condition.”
When looking at her large family background, it’s no surprise that when asked what fictional TV family she would most like to join, she immediately selected The Brady Bunch, with its melding pot of family drama that was nevertheless guaranteed to feature a happy ending episode after episode.
“The Brady Bunch reminds me a lot of my family, but it was a little more perfect than real life because everyone got along a little easier, everyone was happy and figured it out in the end,” Larson says. “My life probably looks more like Modern Family, which is probably a little more true to life.”
Being raised in such a large family clearly shaped Larson personally and professionally. Driven by success, she learned early on that in a family featuring a baker’s dozen of different individuals, ready cooperation was a key ingredient.
“If you don’t learn to work together, it’s just chaos,” she says. “So I learned to push my own needs back for the betterment of the group. I think a really important part of business is that team collaborative effort. It’s such a great feeling of success when you do things together. When you have success together, it’s a more full feeling.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Larson describes her leadership style as highly collaborative in nature. Where she once believed there was one right way to do everything, she’s now embraced the mindset that relying on the strengths of multiple team members and their differing opinions often results in an improved product.
“That’s something that’s really unique about our team at PathologyWatch,” she says. “I feel like each founder brings a strength with them to the group. So, together, we can really collaborate and make something that’s really amazing. It’s been such a fun process.”
Meeting of the Minds
Larson became involved with PathologyWatch after meeting dermatopathologist and cofounder Dr. Gregory Osmond. Both of them were living and working in St. George, Utah, and they recognized that combining their clinical and pathology backgrounds is at the heart of what PathologyWatch is all about.
“I think the product we’ve built and the workflow and services we offer are 10 times better than they otherwise would be,” says Osmond, “because I view it from the lab side and she views it from the clinic side. When those come together, it creates a seamless product.
“I’m more of a visionary, and other people on the team are also building for the future. But that doesn’t make sense unless it works today, unless it makes revenue today or is feasible in the laboratory and clinic today,” he says. “April is really good at driving that home and making sure the product is best in class today, not just what it is going to be in the future. Where the rubber hits the road, that’s where she thrives.”
Digital pathology has helped Larson get back in touch with her roots. She received her medical degree from the University of Utah and completed a research fellowship at the Tom C. Mathews Familial Melanoma Research Clinic at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She followed that up with a dermatology residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“When I trained, I was able to see both the clinical aspect and the pathology aspect, and I kind of lost that because it was hard to get my slides in real time,” she said. “It took a few weeks to get them, and by then I had already given my results to the patients. It turned out to not really be practical for me to use that information, and to me, there is a big strength in being able to see both things at the same time.”
Expanding Technology’s Reach
According to Larson, creating a positive culture within PathologyWatch includes being a good listener to employees and customers alike. In fact, some of the best feedback the company receives comes from clients.
For an example, Larson points to the story of a client who began showing his patients their sample slides while walking them through their results and diagnoses. When she first heard of that practice, Larson didn’t think doctors would really consider it practical from a time standpoint. But to her surprise, it actually proved to be quite successful and helped provide patients with a greater understanding of their condition and treatment options.
“I learned something there that I didn’t expect,” Larson says. “I think it’s always good to see people use the technology we bring them in a different way.”
In another example, a pathologist was able to use the digital slides in a distinctive way by overlaying them together to discover a unique cell population, which helped him correctly identify the specific disease the patient had. The slides had previously gone to a different physician, who had reached a different diagnosis that seemed right at the time. However, the treatments between the two diagnoses would have been quite different.
“That was a real success to see how digital slides could make a difference in a patient’s life,” Larson says. “I find it really exciting to move into the future. A lot of times, medicine is a little bit slower to adopt technology. We see how easily we incorporate technology and information sharing into our daily lives like with iPhones, yet we haven’t had easy tools or seamless integration like with our home devices. It’s really exciting for me to share objective data with patients so they can make good decisions. A valuable part of medicine is always just pushing forward the care and learning more and more. I find that to be the most exciting aspect of digital pathology.”
On a personal note, Larson claims her work ethic as her superpower and cites The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay as her favorite book. She has read the novel several times, the first time as a teenager, and its message of the ability of one person to impact change in a community and in people’s ideas at large left a lasting impression on her.
“It’s actually probably really important in our society now because its main message is embracing diversity and finding beauty in all cultures,” she says. “That’s really valuable to me.”
As Larson can attest, leaders at PathologyWatch actively promote diversity and inclusion by giving voice to employees at all levels.
“Sometimes you have a company where the leaders are at one level and they don’t take any feedback from the company at large. At PathologyWatch, we really try to be transparent and share the vision with monthly all-company meetings.”
For a period of time, the multiple departments at PathologyWatch—such as AI, engineering, software, lab, physicians, business personnel, etc.—were working into different silos. But that has changed over time, said Larson.
“In order to create a seamless and integrated product, all of the teams have to be communicating together,” she said. “Because of this, our products work well in clinical environments and actually speed up the user. That can be rare for healthcare technology, which can be clunky and hard to use.”
When asked about what she likes to do in her spare time, Larson offered the obligatory-yet-truthful rejoinder of “What spare time?” But while she adheres to an organized and structured schedule professionally, it might surprise some to learn that one of her favorite hobbies, to turn a phrase, is to fly by the seat of her swimsuit. That’s because she loves skimming through a boat’s wake on an Air Chair hydrofoil, a water sport device similar to skiing or wakeboarding except that you ride above the water on a chair.
“I am not that great, but one of my favorite memories is getting a lesson from the co-inventor of the Air Chair, Mike Murphy, who came to town for one of the Air Chair Club meetings that my husband goes to,” Larson says. “My husband also loves to Air Chair, so that’s something we both enjoy doing together. He is really good about getting our family out on the lake. I’m kind of a worker bee, so he’s good at getting me out and having fun.”
Larson believes PathologyWatch will continue to make waves of progress in delivering quality care to patients in the immediate and long-term future. The goal is to continue exponential growth by making inroads into AI and melanoma prognostic tools while still bringing the same values the company started with when it was founded in 2017.
“I think where we feel most excited is when we can make a difference in patients’ lives,” Larson said. “I love working with PathologyWatch because it’s really trying to put useful tools into doctors’ hands where it can directly impact patients.”
That’s a prognosis everyone can get behind.