There’s nothing quite like being on Zoom calls for several hours of one’s workday to remind one of proper skincare’s importance. There’s something undeniably motivational about seeing one’s own face poorly lit on a computer screen when it comes to remembering to go to the dermatologist.
That’s part of the reason why dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali has been so busy of late. In a recent conversation with Karen Webster, Bhanusali — who’s also founder of the AIRE SkinStore platform for dermatologists and their patients — noted that cosmetic appointments in his New York City office are already booked out through January.
In fairness, Bhanusali was already going to be very busy, as he’s as close as the world has to a celebrity dermatologist. He’s an adviser to celebrities like Martha Stewart as well as to brands like Johnson & Johnson, Solta and Amazon (which recently launched its first line of skincare products).
Bhanusali is both known for his medical expertise as well as his work as a technologist. He’s creating online platforms to better digitally integrate the entire dermatological field — including the SkinStore, which is the operation’s commerce arm.
Unlike possibly every other store in history, the store wasn’t created just because someone wanted to sell something. In fact, Bhanusali said the SkinStore exists precisely because he didn’t want to be in the business of selling.
“I just don’t feel comfortable being a salesperson,” he said. “My job is to be a doctor, and if somebody asks me a question, I’ll answer it. So if they ask me what recommended products [are], I’d always tell them. But I don’t like to push things or feel like I have inventory that I have to push, push, push. So then the question becomes: ‘How do I get to the drawing board and create something that removes all that unpleasant weirdness and doesn’t require me to hold onto $10,000 to $15,000 worth of inventory?'”
The SkinStore is built off of a virtual inventory design, allowing other dermatologists to join the platform, curate product recommendations for their patients and provide deep discounts for the goods.
“We want to offer a win/win — not just for the doctors, but for the patients as well,” Bhanusali said.
Building A Virtual Dermatology Landscape
Bhanusali also started a second platform – Skin Medicinals — to solve the problem of drug-price inflation.
He developed the operation to compound and sell pharmaceuticals after a drugmaker suddenly hiked the price of a low-cost, popular generic dermatology prescription from about $25 a dose to around $400. It was so steep that the government sued the drug’s manufacturer.
“We had to do something, so I built this platform,” Bhanusali said. “We brought down the medication’s cost back to something like $20 or so, and it’s all virtual. Patients don’t have to go to a pharmacy. They and the pharmacy that we contracted ship the medication right to the patients.”
From there, Bhanusali began adding functionality for electronic health records (EHR) on the AIRE platform to give dermatologists a way to access the records they need for free. That beats paying the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on average that EHR access normally costs.
But offering such the service for free got Bhanusali thinking about how to bring in some revenue to offset the cost. That turned into an effort to tap into the skyrocketing growth in skincare-product sales that the pandemic has created.
Bhanusali said patients want to know what the right products to buy are in terms of effectiveness. He said the SkinStore gives dermatologists a place to guide patients to where clients can purchase the curated products their doctors want them to use.
“Patients are going to buy this stuff whether we [dermatologists] sell it through our offices or not,” Bhanusali said. “And more often than not, patients come in with a bag of products that we tell them essentially to throw out because [they’re] the wrong products. … We want to let the dermatologist be the dermatologist and recommend what they actually like.”
Bhanusali said he personally plans to donate any proceeds from skin-care sales to charity. He said some other doctors are using their sales proceeds to support residency training for dermatologists, or to help offset their costs during a pandemic.
“When it gets to that kind of sticky part about profits and things like that, I let the dermatologist decide,” he said.
Building A Better Digital Dermatologist
Bhanusali said that of all the medical specialties, dermatology is perhaps the most visual. That means it’s unusually well-suited for the world of the digital provisioning of medicine over a screen. As long as a doctor can visually see the patient, he or she can usually treat the person.
He said that opens up whole new horizons of possible care for patients who haven’t been able to easily access a dermatologist before. A person living in rural Idaho can now have as much access to high-end dermatological care as someone living in Manhattan, Bhanusali said. Or, teenagers can schedule online visits in between digital high-school classes that take place in their bedrooms.
Bhanusali said the really amazing part is how much more dermatologists can deliver digitally for patients these days — and how much less work it can actually entail for the doctor.
“We can do quite a bit that we never could before,” he said. “And I think for us, the virtual inventory model of AIRE [compliments] telemedicine really well.”