Episode 12: Vytal Health
Drs. Tiffany Mullen and Alex Yampolsky founded Vytal Health to bring back personalized medicine where patients can genuinely be heard and understood. They're doing this virtually and meeting the needs of people even while the world is living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 0:00
We are people who are very curious and we want to know about everything. We want to know about everything about you. And we're going down into physiology and biochemistry and we're really getting in there and saying like, where's where's the issue? Like, how far upstream can we possibly get here?
Hey, everyone, and welcome to Appreciation Nation. I'm Greg York.
And I'm Dave York. Today we have the honor of meeting with Dr. Tiffany Mullen, co-founder of Vytal Health.
Vytal Health is a telemedicine company that brings clinicians in-home lab testing, and personalized supplements to the comfort of your home on a secure online platform.
Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Vytal Health was founded in 2018 by Dr. Mullen, who is a clinical practitioner, and Dr. Alex Yampolsky, a practicing pharmacist. It seems like the business was formed with the mission of being personalized and comprehensive when looking at total health. Dr. Mullen can you tell us about the business including its origin, in your own words and about your role within the company?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 1:08
Yeah, absolutely. So thanks. It's really great to be here this morning. I think you hit it right on the head. The idea is personalization. I have a background first as a patient. I've been a patient since I was a little child actually a toddler when I was sick and developed a chronic lifelong illness, and that really informed me in terms of what I think the role of healthcare should be in a person's life. And when I became a physician, I obviously noticed that that was transforming in a way that I thought looked a lot more transactional and detached. We founded Vytal Health because we want to have the opportunity to serve patients who are looking for answers to problems and don't want to just have them covered up with prescriptions and be dismissed in a rapid transactional 10 to 15 minute office visit. And so Alex and I founded the company. I'm the CEO, Alex, is the COO. We are a very small company of four and a half people just really getting started here in Milwaukee, and we're pretty excited about being able to deliver this kind of care to the community.
Obviously, having a background in medicine is really important to Vytal Health. But what skill or experience has most surprisingly helped you out in getting the business started.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 2:32
Um, I think if I speak as a physician, I think it is the ability to spend time. Patients really just want to be heard. They want to have the opportunity to tell their story, to have their story be validated, and then partner with somebody to be able to help. And I think that trusted resource is sort of from a bygone era. You know, where your doctor was your doctor for your life and they knew you very well, and they spent as much time as you needed, and they were an intricate part of your team of people that you had in your life. But I think in terms of business skill, I think it has been the resilience that comes from being a patient first of all, and having a chronic lifelong illness. And that chronic lifelong illness is not going away, and it's a painful illness and so that you have to develop some, some pretty significant resilience. And then being a doctor, which also requires a lot of resilience. And so if you can, you know, weather those storms, and, you know, that's like sort of the perfect training ground for being a scrappy entrepreneur, you know, you really get to come to this and say, like, well, you know, I've seen a lot worse than this. So bring it, you know, that's kind of how I feel about the best part of doing this type of work is we're just tough.
So we talk a lot about resilience with folks on the show, actually. I'm curious, what would you say is the source of that resilience? Or what do you do to cultivate that?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 4:08
I think if you just, I think if you just survive enough stuff, you know, and you realize that you can, you know, whatever the challenge happens to be, whether it's a physical health problem or a relationship problem or a mental health problem or something and you realize that you're capable of surviving that, that gives you strength. And I think that strength is really the part that builds the resiliency is just turning your attention towards what you're actually capable of doing and then building on that. I think that's important.
What do you get curious about? What's something that you regularly do, to rekindle a sense of curiosity?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 4:50
I'm laughing because I am insanely curious. People who know me know that I'm a little bit hoardish around information. I actually I don't know if you've ever done the Gallup sort of professional tendencies. I can't remember the name of the title, but there's this inventory that you can do as a professional. And it's
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 5:13
Strengths Finder. Thank you. Have you done that before?
Yeah, it's a lot of fun.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 5:17
It's awesome. So "inputs." And so people who have input issues, and I think it's a good thing, we like to know everything about everything about everything. And so I collect information, I have a obnoxious Slack channel full of articles and things that I have to have at my fingertips all the time. And I think as a physician, and especially a physician who does the type of work that that I do, and the folks that that I work with, do, we're not just about, you know, let's take some symptoms and match them to a prescription and see you out the door. We are people who are very curious, and we want to know about everything. We want to know about everything about you. And we're going down into physiology and biohemistry, and we're really getting in there and saying like, where's the issue? Like, how far upstream can we possibly get here? And so there's this mental unpacking that goes on as you're talking to somebody as you're doing these types of consultations. People like us who do functional integrative holistic medicine, we are just very, very curious people. So what do I do to cultivate it? I read all the time, all the time. And I talk to people and I listen to people and I'm, you know, sort of obsessively extroverted.
Tell us a little bit about what your personal creativity process looks like.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 6:38
Well, that's great. So I think it is finding space. So I think when you're an extrovert, one of the things that regenerates your energy is to find time alone. And so I need to have space for myself and complete privacy with nobody around me so that I can go into my own mind and just go down as many rabbit holes as I need to go down to figure out what I need to do or what I want to do or how I'm thinking about things. So I think it's just finding that space and really, you know, taking the mental time that's necessary even if you're very busy, even if you feel like you have so much to do in a day to make sure that there's just time to process that information. I also do a lot of you know, like, I play the piano and I write and I, you know, do all kinds of other creative processes. I'm actually far more right brain than I am left brained actually. And so I have to do those type of type of creative outlets as well, to bring the energy.
What do you want people who don't know you to know about you?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 7:44
Wow, that's a great question, um, about me personally? That I really deeply care about people's health, including my own, and it's incredibly important for us to focus on health and value it. Our country is pretty lost in that regard. I think it's getting better in some ways. But I think, you know, the health of our country is a little bit scary at times. And so I think it's just incredibly important for people to be healthy. I spend a lot of time with my own health, physically, mentally, you know, spiritually trying to take care of myself and modeling that for my patients, my family. Professionally, I think, you know, what people should know is that Alex and I have a pretty audacious goal of creating a true health care system, meaning that there is a role for sick care, and I'm incredibly, incredibly grateful to it. But that health needs to have a place in there. What does it look like if we actually focused out of sickness? And how would things change for us in the way that we view our health care if that was an option, so that's incredibly important to me. And I know it's important to Alex too.
After we recorded the interview with Dr. Mullen, I realized we missed something important here. When she said certain aspects of health in America are scary, I didn't actually know what she meant. I have my own ideas about the state of health in our country. But I don't even play a doctor on television, so my opinion hardly counts.
Dr. Mullen is an experienced physician who's not only seen many patients over her distinguished career, but has taken on the enormous challenge of working on the system itself because of what isn't working today. She shared some additional thoughts, which are really illuminating. Here's what's scary.
The most prevalent healthcare problems we face in America today - obesity, type two diabetes, and heart disease - are largely preventable.
Billions and billions of dollars are spent in this country each year on these preventable diseases. This is financially unsustainable.
Because health care costs are shouldered by many employers, this has become a huge cost center for businesses. This is also unsustainable.
We're one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And yet there are enormous disparities in quality of health. People of color, low socio economic status, and women all suffer because of this.
The health of our potential military recruits is poor. This creates a situation where we may not have enough people in the national defense system. This is a national security issue.
What's your biggest internal struggle? And how do you handle it when it comes up?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 10:37
Oh, I have no internal struggle. Let's see. Well, I think the biggest internal struggle that everyone has that's trying to do something that they think is important or that they want to see come to fruition is self doubt. And you know, fear and so I think fear is one of the biggest hurdles especially when you're an entrepreneur when you're doing a startup company, and you have a lot of visibility, and you have investors, and you have a lot of people that are leaning on you, especially in a leadership role.
How do you define success for yourself personally?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 11:14
I think of success as being sort of both small and large. So the small success is the day-to-day, you know, getting things accomplished, having moments where you're interacting with people, and you feel heard, and you feel like you're hearing the other person and you're able to help somebody else. So, you know, when I see patients, those are days when I feel very successful, I feel like I'm bringing something to them that they're not going to get anywhere else. And I think our other physicians feel the same way. You know, and there's something about sort of the beauty of the to-do list, you know, scratching off of those things in like small ways that you can sort of say like, yeah, I accomplished a lot today. On a large scale, I think it's just having this idea that you can have impact, that it's really just wanting to leave the planet in a better place than where you came into it. For me, it's not about monetary success. It's really about you know, when I leave, well, I have done some good stuff. And that's, that's really how I define it.
That sounds like legacy.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 12:24
Legacy. Yeah, yeah, but not legacy, like, you know, make a statue or any of that kind of thing. But like, what if you really transformed culture? What if you really made a difference to how how the world operates after you're gone, and even if it's not like necessarily attached to your name, but like you were a part of it, so you don't have to necessarily own the company or be the leader. But what if you contributed to that? What if you were, what if you were a part of that movement?
As the leader of your own entrepreneurial company, success and failure tend to go hand in hand sometimes. What does failure look like, and is there a recent experience you can share with us?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 13:02
Yeah, no failure. Oh, yeah. I mean, it's a rollercoaster. I mean, there are days where it's literally up and down all day where things are going great, and then things are going terrible, and then things are going great and terrible. Or, sort of longitudinally, things are going great for a long period of time, and then there's this sort of massive fall off. Yeah, I mean, I could regale you with stories all day long about how things have just, you know, gone off the rails so many times and I think most recently, there was a crack of thunder and a virus landed. [laughs] And, you know, all of a sudden everyone's pushing their chairs back from the table and you're looking around and you're saying, "Okay, well wait, now how is this gonna work? Because we didn't plan on this." This was not on the timeline. This was not how it was supposed to go. And, oh, by the way, the entire culture of the world has just shifted. Whoa. How are we going to manage this? So it was not abject failure per se. It was not like we're done, we're over. But there were a couple of days where we really had to say like, "Okay, how are we going to survive this?" And I think this is a universal feeling. I don't care what size company you are. But you just try to focus on what you can do, how you can bring what you're trying to bring, despite the fact that people are worried and concerned. And so we really have transformed our company to try to meet the needs of the community. We've developed out a sliding scale program for people to be able to pay whatever they want to meet with one of us and access us for different things that we didn't necessarily offer before just because we can. Just because we're a telemedicine company, and we can help. And so I think that's felt really good.
Just about every company in the world is reexamining its goals and strategy in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, that's affecting humankind. It's a challenging time and a time for introspection.
What is your company's "sliding scale?" How are you adapting to take care of your customers and your employees while managing to take care of yourself and your own family?
How will these changes stick six months from now? How will you be a better citizen of the world in a post-pandemic existence?
What's something you've had to give up for the success of Vytal Health?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 15:29
A paycheck. [laughs]
That's a common theme among entrepreneurs.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 15:35
Right. I was working for a large healthcare company. I was a you know, practicing physician and a medical leader. So the stability of that job definitely was something that I gave up, but 100% worth it. I wouldn't go back.
What are you grateful for?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 15:54
Well, on the daily I'm grateful for my health. I'm grateful for the fact that my family's healthy - that none of us have become sick, that we are growing closer being together all the time, which is a little counterintuitive. I have three teenagers, so they have had to adapt to having to be home all the time. And frankly, I love it. Because I know where they are. [laughs] So yeah, I've just very grateful to all the friends and people - how the community has responded, how much kindness there has been poured forth. A lot of people really have stepped up and I'm very, very grateful to that.
What is the meaning of community and how has that changed since this pandemic began?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 16:39
Well, the meaning of community I think, is any group of people that you have something in common with, whether it's a goal or a spiritual belief or an interest, or a hobby, or you're related or you live in the same neighborhood. That commonality that brings people together in a group, I think is how I would define community. People have had to develop different ways to be together, right? Like this. People have had to really redefine what their community looks like. It's interesting because I live in a small community in the Milwaukee area, which is a very walkable community, and I've had to switch my normal gym routine to being a walker outside. And all of a sudden, I know all these new people, because they're out walking, and they have dogs. And of course, I have to ask questions about the dogs and, there's this whole new routine that's developed. And so I actually feel like a more significant part of this community than I did before all of this happened interestingly.
That is so cool. Yeah. We've heard from a lot of people that they feel closer connection, even though they're physically separated.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 18:01
Yeah, because we value it so much, like Labradors right now we're just like, "People! People!" It's like, it's so exciting. You know, and you really, you just are really excited to see other people and just say hello and chitchat, obviously from the appropriate distance. But you know, just to really be able to get out and appreciate being around each other is amazing.
The tagline of our show is "growth, gratitude and getting started." And we always like to ask this question, and we always get a different answer wildly varying. How do the three of these relate to each other?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 18:40
Okay, so I think you take the gratitude part first - the middle of the sandwich, where all the good stuff is. And if you don't have an appreciation for what you have - your gifts, your ability to get things done, your ability to transform something - you can't grow. And if you can't grow, then you simply cannot, take your passions and your gratitude and move them forward. So those are definitely intertwined for me and getting started, I think is when you finally have your gratitude and your ability to grow as a person nailed, you can finally take a step forward and do it. Jump off the end of the diving board, which is what I did when I left large healthcare and said, "I can do this better. I can contribute to this in a much better way if I could get out of this box." And that was totally necessary. So we'll see. You know, because it's incredibly hard. But yeah, I think if you turn inward and you know yourself, your likelihood of success is greater.
Each episode, we invite our guests to share ideas for a personal growth challenge that we can take on ourselves. We call this the Appreciation Nation Challenge.
Dave and I spend some time turning the idea into actionable steps, then we follow those steps and invite you to join in. We asked Dr. Mullen for her input.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 20:16
Well, yeah, I think for you guys, it's about talking to as many people as you possibly can. These kinds of stories that people can tell, are really potent, and people need to hear from other people. You know, somewhere out there, there is a "me" in healthcare, who's sitting at their desk holding their head in their hands, totally burnt out and frustrated, and they just happen to have your podcast on. And that might be the moment where they're just like, "This is it, I can do it. I need to do something different. I can contribute in a different way." So I think it's just talking to people and telling these stories as much as you possibly can.
I love it.
Dr. Mullen mentioned something that I thought was really cool: the potency of stories, right? Being able to tell stories. I think that that is a good leeway to what our challenge can be. What do you think?
Well, I am partial to storytelling for sure.
Right, that has a lot of this right?
So what do you mean? Yeah, she says to tell potent stories, talk to as many people as you can. And so it was interesting, because she directed that specifically at you and me, which is fun. But we want to translate this to a broader audience as a challenge. Right. So how do we get our audience like, I don't know, telling stories?
I think that that's kind of what we're looking at here. And, you know, obviously, whether or not you're a good storyteller could be a factor in completing this challenge. So I think that it shouldn't have as much pressure. A lot of us are being isolated right now, and a lot of have us are not having as much time to be inspired and to look for ways to inspire one another. So I think kind of using your day to day moments, and maybe just giving that shared experience to somebody else, like literally reaching out to someone else, and telling mostly, you know, typical story that's happened to you that day to them, just so that you can reach out and share an experience. Let people know that we're in this together. Yeah, that's a big hashtag these days - #inthistogether.
Yeah, I mean, I think it's the positive get so I mean, what story are you telling? Is it a horror story? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy?
See, I think the story ought to be specific to your particular experience, something that's happening to you maybe that day, like you go out to the grocery store. You're wearing your face mask and you're picking up the rations the week or whatever, and maybe you see somebody and you guys exchange a glance, we have like a kind of like, light-hearted moment. It's like, "Yeah, you know, we're doing this thing. We're wearing our face mask, and we're moving around." And it doesn't seem like it's that big of a deal. But it's saying those words out loud to another human being that lets us know that we're still connected, that we're not totally isolated, because we're all feeling the same things. We're all going to the grocery stores looking around with a certain amount of uncertainty. Yeah. And, you know, just kind of voicing that uncertainty. That's not a great story. You know, you could come up with something better, or maybe an event was more specific, but to just take the action of literally reaching out to somebody else and telling them about the events of your day.
The spin though that you shared right there is overall a positive one, right? I mean, that's, I think that there's something critical there. It's not just telling your story, the way you see it. Right? Because you might be looking at things right now through a negative lens and your spin on things might not be a positive one. I see a lot of stories on Facebook on Nextdoor, if you use that app. I see a lot of negative stories constantly coming through. I think this challenge is about trying to find the positive story in whatever your daily experience was. So you can be at that grocery store. And you can be freaked out about - I don't know - people who aren't wearing masks that day, getting too close to you - you can be freaked out and mad about that and share that story. And that's your reality, but it's not, you know, just sharing that raw isn't helpful.
So, kind of distilling it down to: take a moment, look at your day, find an element of it, that is a positive. And then actively find somebody to speak that positive anecdote to.
Tell a positive story today. And you may need to vent the rest of this stuff. I'm not saying, you know, suppress your emotions or whatever.
I like that, I think that's great.
You know, because it's important - if you are feeling mad about people, you know, or whatever the situation was like, you have to get that out. But make it a point to find a gem and polish it a little bit, you know, to the best of your storytelling ability, and share it with someone else.
Mm hmm. Tell a positive story.
Yeah. All right.
What's next on the horizon for Vytal Health? And for you personally. I know it's a strange time to be asking that question. But you have to have been thinking about that over the last few weeks.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 25:58
Yeah, just a little bit. [laughs] Yeah, it is. It's a strange time. I mean, this is like the biggest Groundhog Day situation, you know what we do on a day to day basis. It feels like completely the same and completely different all at once. We have been working really hard to, you know, meet the needs of our patients first and foremost, and people who who need help who aren't necessarily our patients, we've done a lot of partnerships with other entrepreneurs, and really just trying to feed our community with information and hope and the opportunity to have access to us to help. You know, who's your trusted "go to," if you can't sleep at night? Well, typically it would be your circle of friends and maybe your family, and then if you run out of options there, you might take it into the medical office. Well, nobody is going into the medical office for things that aren't absolutely necessary. So there's this huge unmet need that we have with people who just don't know where to go with their problems. And they're just like, "Okay, well, I'm just gonna have to park this off to the side until the coast is clear." So trying to meet that need. And I think that we have done a great job of that. And we're continuing to do that, and we're doing it for whatever people can pay us. If that means nothing, then you don't pay us anything. And we'll help. And then what we hope will do is when the sun rises on all of this - and it will - we will transform into a better organization having gone through this. What are we going to do with this company? We have, I think, a better idea of how we can meet the needs of people in a transformed business model that is more accessible and supportive than what we even led with because of this. So building that out and then continuing to grow. Personally, I want get back to the gym. I really want to get back to some normal routines, because those really help me stay grounded and keep me a better leader - keep me sane. And so I intend to take this time to have a lot of gratitude for what I've learned from this experience but also move forward into getting my strength back on all different levels.
How can our audience learn more about you and your company?
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 28:27
Well, our website is a great place to start. www.vytalhealth.com (the 'Y' is for 'you'). We also have some fabulous Facebook and Instagram stuff going on. We have a wonderful person who manages all of that for us and she's so creative, and that's @yourvytalhealth for both of those. And then you know, we have LinkedIn and YouTube and all kinds of other outlets for viewing our content and staying engaged. Our website has some really great blogs, both on current health issues that obviously, all of us are trying to stay on top of as well as things that we do well, in terms of managing more complicated health issues and helping people understand how to move forward.
That is awesome. Thank you so much, Dr. Mullen. This has really been great. I know that health is top of mind for a lot of people right now and I'm really hopeful that people will take advantage of some of the things that that Vytal Health is offering. Thank you so much.
We've enjoyed this week's installment of Appreciation Nation and we hope you have too. Check out our website at appreciation-nation.com. You can read this week's blog and share in the challenge.
Check in on our next episode as we continue adapting the show to a more virtual existence. Stay healthy and safe, practice social distancing, and do something healthy for yourself today. Enjoy this week's challenge, and we'll talk soon.
You know, I did actually have one final question.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 30:15
Uh oh, here it comes.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 30:18
Is this the bonus round.
Oh, this is the bonus round. [laughs] You mentioned at the beginning, that you had a very small company and that you were working with the half of the human. I'm curious who the half human is?
Unknown Speaker 30:29
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 30:32
The "half human" is such a whole human. She just happens to have more jobs than she has time. She is our Chief Information Security Officer, who is a part time employee because she also teaches cyber security and HIPAA for several colleges and so she's a professor as well. And so she does HIPAA and cyber security in the time that she can give to us. So she's absolutely whole.
Unknown Speaker 31:01
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 31:03
She's absolutely whole. She's probably got the job of probably three to four women, so we appreciate what she can give to us. Yeah.
Lots can get accomplished when you put so many great intellectual people together and they work hard.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 31:17
Yeah, absolutely. We feel the same way.
All right, thanks again.
Dr. Tiffany Mullen 31:22
Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Nice to talk with both of you.