Despite the prevalence of Latinos across the country, the healthcare system still fails to meet the unique cultural needs of this population, Zócalo Health co-founder and CEO Erik Cardenas said in an interview.
That’s why he and Mariza Hardin founded their startup last year. Zócalo, a virtual primary care provider designed for Latino patients, began delivering care to California patients in July during a public beta. On Monday, the company announced $5 million in seed funding, which will support its launch of virtual primary care services in Texas and Washington in 2022.
Zócalo’s seed funding stands out as a rare example of venture capital going toward a Latino-founded company. In fact, funding for startups launched by Latinos represents only about 2% of overall startup investment.
“I grew up in South Texas on the border of Mexico and speak Spanish fluently. From my own experience, I saw that the incumbent healthcare system is not designed to address the needs of the Latino population,” said Lisa Blau, founding partner of Able Partners. “We have been looking for an investment in this category and are excited to participate in Zócalo Health’s seed round to enable affordable and accessible primary care that addresses the needs, preferences and expectations of this growing demographic.”
Cardenas and Hardin are both veterans of the healthcare industry — between the two, they have held positions at well-known companies such as Tenet Healthcare, Omada Health, Everlywell and the now-defunct Amazon Care. They created Zócalo to address the fact that Latinos face disproportionately limited access to primary care services, with a ratio of one primary care physician for every 5,000 to 6,000 residents living in predominantly Latino zip codes, Cardenas said.
Zócalo, which has headquarters in Seattle, offers its virtual primary care services through one-time visit fees and membership dues. On the platform, patients can access a care team that is led by their promotor de salud (health promoter), a community health worker who helps coach patients through their care journey. Other members of the care team include physicians, nurses and therapists.
Individual memberships cost about $40 per month, according to Cardenas. These memberships include 12 physician visits per year, as well as unlimited access to the promotor de salud through chat, video and phone encounters. Household memberships cost about $65 dollars per month. Zócalo is also working to include lab work and medications in these memberships in the near future, Cardenas said.
When building its care teams, Zócalo always remembers that it is “for Latinos, by Latinos,” Cardenas said. He noted that it is imperative that Zócalo patients are connected with care teams that “look like them, talk like them and think like them.”
Hiring Latino clinicians who are able to connect with patients on a cultural level is a key differentiator that separates Zócalo from other virtual primary care providers like Teladoc or Firefly Health, according to Cardenas. He said this ensures that clinicians will not disregard closely-held beliefs and traditions that Latinos have, such as the use of home remedies. Deploying Latino care teams is a more genuine way to cater to the unique cultural needs of this population than just simply translating content, as retail clinics like CVS and Walmart do, Cardena contended.
“Our value proposition is to create relationships and to have data at our fingertips that allows us to provide a more personal and tailored experience for our patients,” he said. “It’s not just about accessing a doctor’s appointment. It’s about leveraging these community health workers to build relationships that allow us to better understand what social determinants are at play so we can really address a more holistic experience for our patients.”
Photo: Zócalo Health