Comfort Zone

It’s fantastic when a popular technology from another industry is leveraged to solve a lingering problem in healthcare. Location-based Services (LBS) have been around in the telecom industry for a while now. These services use information about the location from cellular networks to enable enhanced experiences in navigation, shopping, or social gathering etc. Now consider the fact that 1 out of 8 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. It causes a progressive deterioration in judgment, abstract thinking, sense of time/place and behavior; giving rise to a number of safety issues like wandering.

Alzheimer’s Association created Comfort Zone service to provide location updates for family members through a device worn or carried by the affected individual. The hardware form factor ranges from a regular smartphone to a device that can be carried in pocket or installed in car. Each comes with a monthly service plan that is priced according to the frequency of location updates. For example: the once-a-day location update plan (for sprint phone) costs $9.99/month vs. every-15-minute update (for a qualcomm pocket device) is $64.99/month. The underlying LBS platform technology is from Omnilink.

Some of these devices come integrated with Comfort Zone Check-in – a website where a family member or caregiver can log in online to setup geographical ‘zones’ and customize the recipients and frequency of email/text alerts if patient exits their zone. It’s a great example of how healthcare IT should be used: focused solution with integrated hardware, serving a specific need. The service is augmented by a couple of valuable additions. In case internet is not accessible, there is a 24-hour call center available. Monthly plans also include the MedicAlert® + Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return® program, which is a 24-hour nationwide emergency response service for missing Alzheimer’s patients.

Comfort Zone is not entirely unique though; there are other places to get such location-aware services for healthcare use. Project Lifesaver, LoJack SafetyNet provide the technology and the real-world service to locate missing individuals. Some low-end solutions are also available in popular electronics stores.  But the online Check-in service is a differentiator for Comfort Zone. Keep in mind that Alzheimer’s is the only cause of death among the top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. For a concerned caregiver, it is paramount to have a continuous, remote ability to know if the patient is safe. It enables more than one person to lead a normal, independent lifestyle.

Disease organizations are great resources, no doubt. They provide reliable helplines, confidential counseling, referrals, education and support for the affected individuals. Services like Comfort Zone are a perfect example of the technology-based evolution of such organizations.

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Basis

The concept of sensor-based connected devices that help consumers manage a healthy lifestyle is certainly gaining traction. Consider FitBit, Zeo, DirectLife, miCoach, BodyMedia, GreenGoose as examples. It was only a matter of time before a startup in this space decided to go with a watch-like form factor.

I first heard about MyBasis during a talk given by Bharat Vasan (founder?) at Bay Area Quantified Self gathering in June 2010. He referred to it as PulseTracer back then, and described its use for pulse monitoring. Based on the current description on their website, the product concept seems to have matured. Similar to BodyMedia, it now has 4 Sensors: Pulse, Temperature, Accelerometer, Skin Conductance (i.e. moisture). It is USB and bluetooth enabled; and comes with integrated social functionality (gaming, sharing, rewards, etc.). There seem to be smartphone, iPad and online applications that help provide analysis and understanding of the collected data.

MyBasis certainly has the concept nailed: A smart device with multiple sensors and long battery life in a familiar form-factor + Always-on and connected to desktop, mobile and online dashboards that simplify analysis of the aggregated raw data + Integrated social features that help make it sticky and viral. If they play it right, this can be a hit. Mainstream competition from products (like the lackluster Polar offerings) is uninteresting and hardly addictive.

But critics can say that there are always technophile early-adopters (like me) who crave anything that is novel and web-enabled. So before we get over-optimistic about the impending success of such devices, consider two important caveats.

First, it’s not about sophisticated monitoring or granular data. Whether they realize it or not, the key value proposition for an average end-customer is the personalized insight that results from it. Gathering 24X7 data from multiple sensors is great, but it’s all pointless if the user doesn’t understand the ultimate picture that results from all that data. Most users are interested in revelations into their health and lifestyle, not numbers. So the way MyBasis handles analysis is going to be critical. I was disappointed with MyZeo and FitBit for the very same reason. An interesting approach that MyBasis seems to have is the creation of a virtual pet that gives a quick proxy of your overall status. It may sound silly, but abstractions like these have shown promise in encouraging self-monitoring and positive behavior change in users (e.g. see UbiFit project at University of Washington).

Second, the technology and device needs to be so well-integrated with a user’s lifestyle that they essentially ‘disappear’. If someone needs to put a headband one (like for Zeo) or remember to find a USB cable and synchronize every week to prevent data loss, you can be assured that it’s not going to work out long term. As a species, we humans have remarkable lack of discipline even when it comes to things/habits that are good for us. So the offering needs to add minimal extra work and be seamless with your daily life. Neil Versel at MobiHealthNews calls it “passivity”. Example: FitBit gets a better grade than Zeo in this regard. I clip it onto my belt (almost sub-consciously now) every day and plop it on to the USB hub (always connected to my desktop) once in a couple of weeks. That’s it.

MyBasis is still in early beta, so my impression is based on what their website claims and not actual usage. I’ve signed up for preorder and will update this review when I get my hands on one. Seems like the cost is a one-time $199 for now. It would make a lot of sense to have  a subscription-based model of some sort though. Also, it’d be great to see such solutions go beyond just wellness and be tailored for medical-grade serious conditions like diabetes, hypertension, etc. All clues indicate that such applications are not very far in the future.

Healthrageous

The wireless remote health monitoring market is white hot these days. Seems like a lot of creative folks are looking at the increasing ability of connected devices, sensors and wondering why aren’t these disrupting healthcare. Some luminary research centers rooted in academic institutions have found enough financial support to establish formal presence specifically in this space. West Wireless Institute in San Diego, UCLA Wireless Health Institute are good examples.

Established in 1995, the Center for Connected Health is another such example within Partners HealthCare in Boston. They’ve dabbled in a number of remote monitoring pilots- diabetes, dermatology, heart failure, etc. Healthrageous is their first spin-off. It started as a pilot project conducted in 2006 with EMC Corp. to give employees self-management tools for blood pressure. In June 2010, Healthrageous raised $6 million in a Series A funding led by North Bridge Venture Partners of Boston.

Having read enough of them, I think the marketing message around the concept of continuous care through remote monitoring has now been perfected from multiple angles. Read the descriptions from Welldoc, HealthBuddy, Telcare, iMetrikus, Hommed, Cardiocom, Gentag, BL Healthcare for example. Healthrageous also does a good job at describing the high-level value proposition.

But it seems that the transition from online paragraphs to a generally available, well-known and affordable solution has not happened. I searched for what product/service I could buy through Healthrageous to help a close friend manage her hypertension, but couldn’t find anything. There are some encouraging success stories on the website, but no explanation as to where can one sign up for becoming a success like that. I wish these websites were more transparent and lucid, maybe even at the risk of being less enchanting.

PS: Found two candidate consumer-oriented solutions for remotely managing hypertension. One is not available yet (Withings BP Monitor), and other needs an Apple iOS device to work (iHealth Lab’s BP3) and didn’t get great reviews. If anyone knows of other products/services, please share through comments below.

Enhanced by ZemantaUpdate Oct 2013: Healthrageous closed shop this month. Apparently the backing of big names like Partners Healthcare and millions in funding ain’t enough. Who would have thought..

Welldoc

Patient Monitoring is one of the mature, established markets in healthcare industry. A promising trend in that is the emerging ‘Remote Patient Monitoring’ (RPM) paradigm. (If you don’t know much about RPM, this 2009 report from Frost.com is one of most insightful ones out there. It requires paid subscription though).

The underlying concept is nothing new in medical device industry, with it’s origins perhaps in holter monitoring fifty years ago. But true at-home remote monitoring began gaining traction in early 1990s; and today some major names are in the race: Honeywell Hommed, Philips, Health Hero, Cardiocom, Corventis. All of these companies have had an actual device as a part of the overall offering-  some piece of electronic hardware that enables capture and transmission of given physiological parameter(s). LifeStream, Motiva, HealthBuddy, Commander, PIIX are the respective names of the hardware from companies mentioned before. Even the recent consumer-oriented solutions like GlowCaps, Zeo, Fitbit etc. have a proprietary piece of electronics central to them.

And that, is what makes Welldoc is interesting. They have a disease management solutions that are entirely mobile and web-based. No proprietary hardware. It’s an interesting approach that points to an underlying need as well as an overall weakness of such models.

The unmet need here is for solutions that help engage patients at home and provide round-the-clock assistance in chronic disease management (e.g. what insulin dose to take, when to see your physician, etc.). That doesn’t require a device hooked to patient necessarily- it can be accomplished by manual data entry, easy-to-use software and intelligent algorithms. The value proposition is across many soft (as in, hard to quantify ROI on) aspects: enabling patient self-management, promoting health education, improving compliance, effecting positive behavior change etc. Of course, all these lead to some hard benefits that can be quantified (like improved Hb A1C values over time), but the cause-effect relationship can never be established beyond doubt.

The weakness in this approach is that all this depends on manual data entry by the patient or caregiver. It assumes that the affected individual is capable and disciplined enough to interact with the software consistently and reliably. Offering mobile applications is one way to start making that assumption partially valid. As a constant companion with computing power and internet connection, mobile phone makes it easier to use such software. But not enough to cover what I call the ‘last mile‘ of remote patient monitoring- from the patient’s body to an electronic data capture device. No matter how sophisticated the software is, it’s no good if there is not enough data to run its logic on. And our fundamental human behavior tends to revert back to lazy, undisciplined ways sooner or later. So yes, there is a role for pure disease management software but its a stretch to assume that it’ll suffice on its own.

WellDoc was founded by endocrinologist Suzanne Sysko Clough, MD in 2005. Their first solution, focused on Diabetes managment, was piloted in Baltimore in early 2006. Digging through their news it seems they have been fortunate enough to find substantial angel and grant funding, starting with $5M in 2007 and totaling nearly $17M to date. Recent years have also brought some big milestones for WellDoc: deal with Jitterbug (April 2009), FDA clearance (August 2010), deal with AT&T (October 2010), and integration with AllScripts EHR (December 2010). WellDoc website is skimpy on the actual details of their product, but there is a high-level demo. They seem to be expanding beyond diabetes into cardiovascular, wellness, medication adherence and clinical trials data management areas. That is a smart move. Also smart is their attempt at a business model. As their CEO explains in this article, they are aiming to get paid by large employers, plans and payers for making chronic disease management programs more effective.

The whole RPM industry has been praying for national direct reimbursement for decades now. Its been a tough journey so far- positive studies keep trickling out, and every year seems to be the one that will finally see payers admitting the cost-savings from RPM and starting reimbursement. WellDoc has also invested heavily in clinical trials to convince the industry. It’ll be worthwhile to see how successful a purely software-based company would be at making a living in the RPM market.

February 2011 Update: WellDoc announced that they have acquired Oncology Care Home Health, LLC, a education and consulting company helping home health providers implement specialized oncology home care programs. Probably the idea is to use that specialized knowledge to augment the logic behind their oncology offering (maybe get that FDA certified?).

Asthmapolis

Asthmapolis is brainchild of David Van Sickle a researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The basic idea is to equip inhalers with a GPS tag to determine when and where was it used by the patient. When such individual (de-identified, of course) medication data is aggregated, it can provide population care insight like environmental triggers and disease impact.

Seems like there are three components of the overall offering:

  1. A hardware device called “Spiroscout” – a small add-on that mounts the inhaler canister. Every time it is pushed, the location and time-stamp data is recorded.
  2. Mobile app – a ‘diary’ to keep track of symptoms, triggers, medications, etc. Can also be used to view map of data received from Spiroscout, and to get sms reminders for taking medication.
  3. Online website – a ‘dashboard’ of sorts. Can help summarize submitted data to figure out disease patterns and trends.

The hardware device is not out yet (website says it’ll be out this summer), and the mobile app is currently in private beta. So there is not much of real world testing that has happened. But I’m still positive about Asthmapolis, for a number of reasons.

First, it’s the right kind of ‘focused’ monitoring solution that can potentially be transformative for managing a specific disease (kinda like Regina Herzlinger‘s argument about ‘Focused Factories‘ as one of the ways to salvage the entire healthcare system). It’s better than trying to find a solution that can monitor multiple conditions (example 1, example 2). I think the mobile diary and online dashboard would be key engagement tools in this regard. The more focused and customizable, the better.

Second, it helps in medication adherence which is a big issue irrespective of the medical condition. I think that knowing whether you took your medications and getting reminders if you didn’t,  is more powerful than knowing when/where you took it. The mobile app reminders would be a great resource there (automated calls to landlines may be good too…for seniors).

Third, it helps understand the individual triggers and community impact of asthma. For successful asthma management, a patient should know his/her triggers and avoid getting exposed to them. That is not an easy task for a number of reasons. My initial reaction was that GPS may be a bit of an overkill. But with rapidly decreasing cost of location-aware technology, why not? Much better than using it to check-in to nearby McDonalds.

Life Pebble

Toumaz technology is a spin-off from Imperial College of London , and they make what is probably the only ultra low-power silicon chip targeted for healthcare applications. In October 2009,  they launched the Sensium Life Pebble wireless monitoring device in EU.

The Life Pebble hardware includes a single lead ECG, skin thermometer, and an accelerometer. The data collected by the system is streamed wirelessly to a USB Network Adapter over short distances. According to MobiHealthNews, the device is currently in clinical trials are few US hospitals and Toumaz has declared an intention to submit for FDA clearance in 2011. This continuous physiological monitoring capability is currently marketed for assisted living, rehabilitation and professional sports applications by the company.

If we can put aside the “who will pay for this?” question for a minute, this kind of technology has myriad applications in both consumer and provider space. What is chunky hardware today, will almost surely be a disposable, thin patch tomorrow. If we can have a reliable way to do real-time monitoring of key vitals, disease management is no longer confined to interactions in the healthcare setting.

What intrigues me is how the trend of medical-grade remote monitoring (which is moving outside of hospital setting with technologies like Sensium) will interact with the trend of consumer-oriented remote monitoring (FitBit, DirectLife, BodyMedia, Zeo, etc.). There will be a shakeout, obviously. My guess is that the winners then will be not be defined by which way and how much data they gather, but what they do with that data. Analytics and interpretation will be the differentiators.

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