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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Jitterbug Health Services

Jitterbug Wireless is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) founded in 2006. They offer simplified mobile hardware and service targeted towards baby boomers, with the value proposition being the opposite of a feature-rich phone. Few big, buttons and great customer service are it’s selling points for seniors who are looking for hassle-free wireless connectivity. Verizon Wireless is their main underlying network provider.

My interest piqued after I heard David L. Inns (Jitterbug CEO) speak at the Mobile Health 2010 event held in May 2010 at Stanford University. He described a sizable list of Health-related services available to Jitterbug customers. Here is the current list, and pertinent facts (from May 2010 time frame) from the presentation he gave at the event:

  • Check-in Calls: Automated calls to check-in on the user or a loved one. $5/month.
  • Medication Reminders: Automated calls at the right time to remind taking medication. Neat functionality includes a prescription refill reminders (with option to be connected to the pharmacy), personal dashboard that tracks medication adherence, and the ability to share it with others. In partnership with Meridian Health. $10/month.
  • LiveNurse: Unlimited 24-access to a registered nurse for health advice and information. Free on rate plan $29 and up, $4 month otherwise. 12,000 reported users in 6 months post-release and about 4000 calls handled per month. One-fifth of the callers end up seeking medical attention within 24 hours.
  • Daily Health Tips: Daily guidance and tips on living a heart-healthy lifestyle. Free. In partnership with the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Movement. Reported 4,000 users.
  • Wellness Calls: 5-minute per week motivational calls with tips and techniques related to topics like sleeplessness, stress, loneliness etc. Attracted 1,000 users in one month. Free with plans above $29. Content by Brian Alman who runs TruSage.
  • 5 Star Emergency Response: Personal emergency response service. Based on the offering by startup MobiWatch that they acquired late 2009. Supposed to be launching around Fall 2010.
  • D-Coach: A little-known, yet-to-be-launched diabetes management service in partnership with WellDoc. Incidentally, WellDoc’s Diabetes service recently got FDA clearance in August 2010.

None of these service concepts are unique per se, each has been attempted by other wireless (and non-wireless) companies. But two things make them highly viable within Jitterbug. First is their niche target market. It’s no secret that majority of healthcare costs are due to individuals age 65 and up. And that is Jitterbug’s target user too. A personal mobile device may provide the elusive ‘last-mile‘ access to such individuals. Second is the personalized, high-touch nature of Jitterbug’s service. Jitterbug users are already used to connecting with a human operator with one button-click and use them for pretty much everything – find a contact, dial the number, get weather info, etc.. Adding health-related services to that framework makes undeniable sense.

It’s not hard to imagine other services waiting to materialize- outpatient appointment scheduling and reminders, preventive services (flu shots, etc.) assistance, personal health record information access, to name a few. I bet we’ll see more wireless network operators move into the healthcare services vertical. For now, advantage Jitterbug.