Spotlight Interview: Drew Ben-Aharon, Chief Growth Officer & Product Development, Great Speech, Inc.

About Drew Ben-Aharon 

Drew Ben-Aharon has over 25 years of experience in executive sales, corporate operations and human capital management. He currently serves as Chief Growth Officer and Product Development for Great Speech and is responsible for all enterprise and health plan sales in the United States. As a consultant and instrumental designer for Great Speech Inc. since its inception, he has helped to build this revolutionary virtual speech therapy company which today provides synchronous and asynchronous speech therapy services in 47 states.  

Under Drew’s direction Great Speech has secured national contracts with numerous top level health plans that recommend Great Speech’s services to millions of their members. Drew also oversees affinity and voluntary telehealth plan designs underwritten by MGU’s and resellers to the under and uninsured markets.  

Prior to joining Great Speech in 2020, Drew was employee #4 and an instrumental component of growth for MDLIVE where he led sales for both Enterprise and health plan for over 10+ years. MDLIVE is one of the largest telehealth companies in the US today and was recently acquired by Evernorth, Cigna’s health service business arm.  

Drew’s passion to educate and provide alternative solutions to healthcare through leveraging technology emanates from his 13 years as a volunteer medic in New York City where he was a first responder to One World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Drew is passionate about contributions that systems and technology can make to those with communication disorders, empowering health care providers to use new mediums of communication currently supporting patient centered medical home initiatives evolving nationwide.  

Drew earned his Bachelor of Science from Touro College in both Business Management and Marketing; and his Masters of Business Administration from St. John’s University in Finance. Drew resides in South Florida with his wife and 4 sons and is an active board member to numerous non-profit organizations and local charities. 

About Great Speech, Inc. 

Great Speech, Inc. is the pioneer and recognized leader in virtual speech therapy, and since 2014 has delivered convenient, specialized services to clients anytime, anywhere. Its innovative approach leverages technology to match credentialed therapists with children, adults and seniors (Medicare members)who need and seek better speech communication. Proud recipient of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) certification.  

Medical Travel & Digital Health News (MTDHN): Tell us how you got involved in Great Speech and what the impetus was for you starting this company. 

Drew Ben-Aharon (DBA): In 2009, I entered the virtual telemedicine space representing one of the largest telemedicine organizations for medical acute care and behavioral health in the United States. As it continued to grow, and as demand and inquiry started to increase, my wife, Avivit, who is a speech therapist, and I had a discussion and realized where the future of care was going.  

For example, look at online banking. Online banking took over the way we manage our money today. Transferring funds, Venmo-ing a friend or taking a picture of a check limits our need to ever have to show up to a branch. We see today that there are numerous banks out there that don’t even have a brick-and-mortar presence in the United States.  

We felt the therapy space – and specifically the speech therapy space — was going to be the same. There will always be a need for a brick-and-mortar touchpoint, but many other ailments or issues can be supported and assisted in a virtual encounter. That is really where we were growing and what we were looking to do in 2014.  

MTDHN: What has been the uptake in the market as far as adopting your platform or engaging with your company?  

DBA: We’ve seen continued growth year over year.  

COVID gave propelling momentum as people were forced into virtual mediums, but most people have since come to understand, trust and embrace it. 

Our virtual therapy sessions are precise. You have a 30-minute session, you’ll log on a minute before and you’ll log off a minute after. Altogether, that takes 32 minutes of your time to get the care and support you need.  

Prior to this virtual approach, you would have had to leave the house 20-30 minutes before, wait in the waiting room, and then spend another 20 minutes or so to get back home. What would be over an hour of your time going to a rehab center could be brought down to just 32 minutes with Great Speech. That is what makes us more time-efficient than in-person therapy.  

Our goal is to create a consistent environment of therapy and support. We have also built an asynchronous hybrid model, which allows the member to practice in between sessions. In addition to the one-on-one live therapy support with a speech therapist, patients are given videos or a workbook with exercises to work on between their sessions. We encourage the plans and employers to embrace and move forward with this model.  

Our goal is to improve access and, through our hybrid synchronous and asynchronous care plan, support the patients outside of our virtual sessions in order to help them achieve quicker and better results. 

MTDHN: What age groups do you work with? 

DBA: We work with patients of all ages — children, adults and seniors alike.  

Our youngest patient today is four years old. 

We need them to be able to engage and interact on a computer, but young kids nowadays are incredible when it comes to what they can do with phones and computers.  

For youngsters under four years of age, we do what is called, “parent coaching.” We work with their main care provider, usually their parent, and we coach and assist them to be able to help the child until they turn four years old. Once they reach that stage, we can take over their care plan and support them. 

On the other side of the age range, we work with the senior population and Medicare Advantage enrollees nationwide. We like to ask them, “Do you FaceTime with your grandchild?” or “Have you connected via Zoom in a family chat during the pandemic?” If they answer “yes,” then they would be a good candidate for us since it shows that they are comfortable with technology and have attached it to a positive component.  

Our scope of service ranges from treating articulation, stuttering or addressing issues resulting from a traumatic brain injury, to having a brain, throat and/or esophageal tumor removed. 

We are also seeing more cognitive impairment and age-related issues such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. With Parkinson’s, we want to help people at the earliest stages of disease to control their vocal cords and prevent aspiration. However, we don’t support anything dealing with feeding or swallowing.  

MTDHN: Tell us about working with children with autism. 

DBA: We assist those who are medium to high functioning on the Autism Spectrum or have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. We help them with understanding social cues, as well as communicating and identifying the roles and responsibilities they have within their environment so that they will be able to go out there and do what they need to do with limited support.  

With the autism population, therapy may take months or even years. As these patients get older, there are different expectations that they have of their own social ability or communications which we work on with them. 
MTDHN: How are you addressing Social Determinants of Health (SDoH)? 

DBA: We address SDoH by assisting with a critical component — loneliness. The inability to effectively communicate with others can lead to anxiety, depression, social isolation and loneliness. We have experienced and specifically educated therapists who are able to address patients’ specific needs depending on the type of communication disorder they have. This helps patients improve their communication ability which can decrease the feeling of depression and loneliness. 

In addition, meeting a few times a week leads to a great relationship built between the patient and therapist. We’ve heard many stories of patients looking forward to meeting their speech therapist every week and building a friendship.  

MTDHN: Who do you serve and how do they access your virtual speech therapy services?  

DBA: We are in 47 states but can expand into all 50 states as needed. We currently don’t have much demand in states like Wyoming. 

We have three buckets that we focus on:  

First, we serve payers and health plan members. 

Second, we serve prisons and juvenile detention centers.  

Lastly, we serve consumers directly wherever they live, including rural communities or enrolled in virtual school systems.  

We accept flexible spending accounts (FSA) and health savings accounts (HSA) dollars. We also work with health plans, such as Cigna nationally and Optum Florida, and would love to work with more carriers or health plans.  

One of the difficulties we find is that health plans don’t realize the cost that comes from not giving proper access to speech therapy.  

Communication is one of the key factors in our lives for our happiness. Are our friends or family connecting enough? How do we know people care? It all comes down to the fact that they call and check up on us. If we don’t have communication, we really don’t have anything in our world. 

There was a study from 2017 to 2021 stating that 46 million Americans suffer from a communication disorder, but only 10% seek services or assistance. We need to be the voice for that other 90%.  

If you have a communications disorder, it’s difficult to be your own advocate. You’re unable to fight your case because you don’t feel comfortable communicating and worry about how you would be perceived when communicating with someone.  

So where does that take us? It takes us to depression and feeling self-isolated or lonely. It takes us to not being able to receive medical care and management. There is research that says people with communication disorders have poorer health and healthcare outcomes.  

MTDHN: Can a third-party administrator offer this to their employer clients? 

DBA: Yes.  

MTDHN: How many sessions does it take and what are your outcomes?  

DBA: It depends on the diagnosis.  

Every diagnosis is different. For example, for aphasia patients or post-stroke patients, the sooner we begin therapy with them, the better and quicker the results. We see post-stroke patients for about four to five months, and for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, about 18 months is typically the length of service.  

We are not curing Alzheimer’s, and I don’t want to make any claim like that. But it has been medically shown that we can slow down the deterioration of that disease. If a patient is forgetting words at a certain pace and we can slow that down, that adds value to the quality of life for the patient and their family as well as cost savings for their medical plan. 
MTDHN: Can you tell us about your licensed professionals? 

DBA: All our speech therapists must have their clinical competency and have a minimum of six years of experience in an in-person environment.  

We have a governing body called the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) that oversees and makes sure that our therapists are in good standing and follow their continued education and licensing requirements.  

In regard to licensing, I wish it was simpler for us because there is really no difference in treatment with an aphasia patient in Florida versus in Texas. Yet those are two different licenses, two different applications and two different continuing education requirements. We would love to see some unified telemedicine licensing across all 50 states to streamline access to care for patients and simplify licensing issues for professionals. 

Another great benchmark includes subspecialties. We interview our therapists to understand what they are most passionate about. What do they want to address or support? We have some therapists who only work with adults or only work with kids, or specifically work with the autism population.  

One of our therapists told us that her brother is autistic and that she entered this space because she saw all the therapists coming in and out of her house, working with her brother. She wants to also help that population and because she’s licensed in multiple states, we can give her a caseload of autistic children to assist.  

If we embrace their subspecialty and their passion, our therapists will be able to get a deeper understanding of that member’s condition.  

MTDHN: You mentioned earlier about COVID-19. Does it have any impact on speech and communication disorders?  

DBA: Tremendously.  

Recovering COVID patients will have different complications. If they were intubated, their vocal cords might have been damaged, and they need to strengthen and improve their vocal cords. Some patients who still have breathing issues will run out of air in the middle of speaking and we work with them on diaphragmatic breathing. 

I just want to make a quick note. I am not a speech therapist so I’m not giving any clinical advice in any way, shape or form. I am just speaking from our speech therapists’ experiences and recommendations.  

So that is stage one. Stage two, we’ve developed a long COVID-19 program. The goal behind it is to focus on the brain fog. Any kind of cognitive disability would fall under speech and language pathology. There is a cognitive component to brain fog, so we have developed a long COVID program that supports those members. We work with them on a one-on-one basis with different exercises and activities that they can do to improve their memory and speech skills. Hopefully, we’ll be launching a group therapy program as well, shortly.  

MTDHN: If leaders want to get in contact with the company, who should they be contacting?  

DBA: They can contact me. As chief growth officer & product development, I work with outside organizations.  

MTDHN: Is there anything else you would like to mention?  

DBA: In the movie, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson was on trial, and he made a statement saying, “I’m here to defend those who can’t defend themselves.”  

What I want to say to you is that I’m here to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. I’m here to be the voice for those 46 million members, the 90% out there who are not getting access to care and support.  

It’s not just a rural problem. It’s an urban problem as well. We get numerous people from Los Angeles to New York City who tell us that they have a clinic five minutes away, but the next opening is three months from now.  

If you just had a stroke, the quicker you start rehabilitation, the better the results will be. So don’t think of it as a rural issue—think of it as an all-around, across-the-board, access issue and we need to leverage technology to improve this access.