Mint Medical is excited to welcome Dr. Steven Okuhn as our newly appointed Medical Director. Dr. Okuhn has an extensive background as a board-certified vascular surgeon in the San Francisco Bay Area. A New Jersey native, he received his undergraduate degree at Harvard before moving to California where he attended medical school at Stanford. “Once you come out to the bay area, and you don’t have to shovel snow and you get to see how beautiful it is, you can’t really contemplate going back,” he says of his decision to stay in California. He completed his internship, residency, and fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco, and went on to work at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.
“I got to practice surgery the way I thought it should be practiced,” Dr. Okuhn says of his time at Kaiser. He appreciated the prepaid health plan model they offer. “Normally a surgeon is a profit center…the more operations you do, the more money you make. I didn’t want to be in a system like that if I could help it, so I was lucky that Kaiser offered me a job and I got to work there for thirty years,” he says.
It was during his time at Kaiser that Dr. Okuhn met Brad Hummel, the CEO of Mint Medical. Dr. Okuhn was running a program to treat aortic abdominal aneurysms (AAA) at Kaiser. An AAA occurs when the main blood vessel in the abdomen becomes enlarged over time. Although ruptures are rare, they can be fatal, so it is important to catch AAA early. Dr. Okuhn wanted to implement a screening program for Kaiser patients who were at risk. Typically, this includes older males with a history of smoking. There were about 70,000 Kaiser patients who fit the criteria in 2013.
“That’s 70,000 ultrasounds if we invited them and they all accepted. That was close to 10% of all the ultrasounds that we did at Kaiser in Northern California and that was not possible. It would have meant that other patients would have to wait…who required ultrasounds in a timely manner,” Dr. Okuhn explains. “To solve this problem, I partnered with Brad and Mint Medical.” Mint Medical already had vascular ultrasound labs at some of the Kaiser medical centers at this time. As part of the screening program, Mint Medical brought in ultrasound machines and technologists to all 16 Kaiser medical centers in Northern California. “In the span of about a year and a half, [Mint Medical] screened close to 40,000 patients with abdominal ultrasounds and roughly 1 in 20 of those men did have AAA. It was just an amazing effort,” Dr. Okuhn says.
Dr. Okuhn retired from Kaiser in 2017 and has continued teaching vascular surgery at UCSF and working at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Fort Miley. He also worked with Mint Medical as a consultant for a few years before joining as the Medical Director in 2023. He is uniquely suited to the role due to his background as a vascular surgeon.
“With noninvasive vascular imaging, the customers are typically vascular surgeons. [They] are ordering these studies,” Dr. Okuhn explains. “Because of the way this kind of testing evolved over the last fifty years, vascular surgeons tended to have these tests performed in their offices,” he says. “That was part of the way they made a living, but also to have quality control…As healthcare has become more corporate, there are also lots of [vascular ultrasound] labs in hospitals.”
Dr. Okuhn acknowledges that there is some mismatch in studies done outside of a vascular surgeon’s purview. In these cases, the ultrasound labs may fall under the radiology department, and those departments aren’t focused on performing specialized vascular studies. The technologists don’t have as much training in these studies. “They take longer, and often the quality of the study is not adequate. Then, the vascular surgeon needs to repeat it. That’s expensive and time-consuming,” Dr. Okuhn explains. “[They might] order a CAT scan because the ultrasound wasn’t good enough, and now…the patient has to be exposed to radiation where they otherwise wouldn’t have.” This is a prime example of the need for Mint Medical’s specialized vascular ultrasound services.
Dr. Okuhn brings a unique perspective to the Mint Medical team. “I know the value that Mint Medical provides from my personal experience,” he says. “I’ve been a consumer of these noninvasive vascular imaging studies, I know what a good study is, and I know the cost of a study that’s not done optimally.” As Medical Director, Dr. Okuhn will play an integral role in the future of Mint Medical as it continues to grow to meet the need for quality vascular ultrasound exams.
Mint Medical currently provides these services in clinics and hospitals throughout Northern California. However, there is also growing demand for vascular ultrasound services outside of these establishments. There is an ongoing need for diagnostic exams to detect deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a narrowing of arteries, and venous insufficiency among other conditions. Physicians may need to refer patients for diagnosis but sending them to the hospital can be time-consuming and costly. In these cases, a specialized vascular ultrasound clinic can take referrals and get timely results.
Dr. Okuhn gives another use case for such clinics. “[Vascular ultrasound] studies are also used to do procedures. If you have an abnormal vein and it needs to be closed with some kind of ablation procedure…or you’re putting a needle in a vein and want to know exactly where…you use an ultrasound as part of the procedure,” he says. In this case, the ultrasound is used to image the veins and guide the procedure. Procedures like ablation to treat varicose veins can be done in an outpatient setting instead of a hospital. “That’s just another way [Mint Medical] can provide value,” Dr. Okuhn explains. “It could change the way care is delivered in our community.”
Mint Medical welcomes Dr. Okuhn as a valuable member of the executive team and looks forward to his insight and leadership as the company continues to expand its offerings of high-quality vascular care.
Guest Contributor: Jordan Galerkin