The Colgate Scene
November 2001

The business of breathing

Bob Smoler '79 is a businessman concerned with every breath his clients take.

Breathnet, founded three years ago by Smoler and pulmonologist Dr. Ben Safirstein SOF '91,'97, delivers a set of technological tools and services online at www.breathnet. com to a network of pulmonologists who, so equipped, can provide better care for their patients.

Both men had worked in managed care -- Safirstein was the founding medical director of Oxford Health Plans and Smoler was one of the members of the founding management team -- initially drawn to the business with the belief that HMOs would improve the quality of care and reduce costs.

"When Ben and I left Oxford after 11 years, we felt that really the only way to improve healthcare was to do it through the doctors," says Smoler. "The whole idea of a third party trying to manage care by saying yes or no to services, or telling patients they had to go here or there, really didn't work."

In addition to the services Breathnet offers, the company documents the outcomes and will publish those results "with the hope of elevating the overall care that is given to patients for conditions like asthma and COPD, pneumonia, pulmonary fibrosis and others," according to Smoler.

Breathnet also does clinical, outcomes and appliance research and epidemiologic studies. Collected data is discussed with participating physicians to help them better understand various treatments and their effects.

Admittedly "idealistic," Smoler has a personal involvement in the business, too. "My whole family has asthma. What got me very excited about starting the business is that I've suffered through my kids staying awake at night. I never realized that there were these guidelines out there."

Protocols for many chronic disease states has been available from the NIH for more than 10 years, yet the medical community follows them less than 20 percent of the time, according to Smoler. Breathnet has and continues to recruit the best network of doctors it can, then supplies them with the technology -- embedded with the best practices for treatments -- that allows them to record and measure their activities.

"I've become a little preachy about this. Asthma is probably one of the most treatable illnesses under the sun. Patients just need to get to a good doctor and be put on the right medications and be followed properly and they'll do fine."

Breathnet has a network of 75 physicians in the metropolitan New York area and a game plan to take the program nationwide.

"The sale to the doctors, who have documented high-quality outcomes, is getting them compensated appropriately for the care they are providing. We believe that eventually, as we collect this information and prove that our network is superior, we can get the doctors compensated for producing better outcomes."

Breathnet has a strong Colgate presence. Meredith Safirstein '91 is director of marketing and her husband Marshall Bergmann '92 serves as the company's CIO.

"I worked with Meredith and Marshall at Oxford and they came onto the Breathnet team primarily because they both share our passion for trying to make improvements in the American healthcare system," says Smoler.

Bergmann's expertise is in information technology and he helped design and build Breathnet's website and data capture tool, a series of data input screens that allows the company to collect clinical information on patients at the point of care. Meredith has a background in marketing, wrote most of the content on the site and is helping Breathnet market the network to pharmaceutical companies.

"Outside of the fact that Meredith and Marshall are related to Ben, the reason that I love having them in the company is because they share the intense passion and work ethic that is typical of so many Colgate students and alumni. In a startup company, those traits are indispensable."

Reconnecting

It was another health issue that reconnected Smoler with Colgate. While his younger brother Matthew '89 was on campus, he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in the pons area, the worst kind of brain tumor.

"What was amazing to me and drew me to Colgate was how great the administration was in handling Matt's situation. Sally Campbell Decock '80 was dean of freshmen then, and she and others nursed him through to graduation."

A year later, Matt, who was then in a wheelchair and looked vastly different because of his advancing illness and the steroids he was taking, wanted to return to campus.

"He was so involved with Colgate that it was the last place he wanted to be before he died." Smoler, with his sister and father, brought Matt to school and it happened to be Spring Party Weekend.

"We wheeled Matt across Whitnall Field. There was music playing and kids were throwing Frisbees and having a good time. I told a few people it was Matt Smoler and I was just blown away the way these students gravitated to him. They didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that he was the personification of illness. I truly know Matt had a fantastic time on campus in what turned out to be his last days. I realized at that point what a special place Colgate is. I realized that something more than education is going on there and that I needed to get involved because there aren't that many places that special."

Smoler began by establishing the Matthew Smoler Memorial Scholarship, then later he and his wife Lisa started a second scholarship dedicated to creating diversity programs on campus and supporting diversity among the student body.

Smoler has also given his time to Colgate, chairing the Presidents' Club and beating the drum for support.

"My business keeps me very busy but I decided if you believe in something you have to be willing to support it with your money and your time. Vice chair Bill Freeborn '76 and I really think there is an opportunity to get a message to alumni that Colgate is a special place that they should stay connected to for their entire lives."

Bob Smoler, in business and life, is committed to doing well by doing good.

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