In March 2009, Apple hosted an event to introduce the iPhone OS 3.0 software. What I really found interesting back then was a prototype showcased with Lifescan (a J&J company), where they demonstrated how a user could manage her diabetes using an iPhone-accessory glucometer. It was a much needed evolutionary conceptual leap for a widely-used consumer medical device category.
Turns out that Lifescan apparently did nothing with that concept. Anita Mathew (who gave the demo on Lifescan’s behalf in 2009) decided to take it forward on her own and founded Glooko. The company currently sells MeterSync, a cable that connects your iPhone to five popular glucometers in the market. Users can download the ‘LogBook’ app from iTunes store to document, analyze and share their data.
I’m not an investor (yet), but if I was, I’d put my money in Glooko. This is exactly what the future should start to look like for conventional consumer health devices. Instead of being isolated products that store a limit amount of quarantined information, they need to provide a service that enables longitudinal disease management. For a patient with long-standing diabetes, he/she needs to know how much insulin to inject for covering the meal they are about to have, not what their blood glucose number is. It reminds me of Theodore Levitt’s famous MBA quote “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”
For Glooko, the long-term sustainability is directly proportional to how useful and sticky it’s users find the logbook iPhone app. The hardware (Metersync) may be critical at first, but end user experience and market differentiation will come from the software. There is competition, of course. Agamatrix has been in the market with it’s iPhone compatible glucometer, and last year they announced partnership with Sanofi-Aventis that gives them the much-needed commercialization ability. Instead of augmenting diagnosis, another company Cellnovo takes a similar approach with therapeutic insulin pumps. Perhaps we’ll see a synchronized gluocometer-insulin pump offering or an intelligent, symbiotic ecosystem for diabetes devices in future.
I’ve talked about the ‘last-mile’ of remote patient monitoring in the past. Conventional medical devices produce digital manifestations of physiological parameters, but the information collected hardly goes beyond the device itself. We need consumer-oriented medical devices to become monitoring services that automate/transform the last mile for consumers. The future is arriving piecemeal, and sadly enough, it’s not being delivered by the incumbent behemoths of the medical device industry. Withings BP Monitor (which I can personally validate since I use it) enhances the value proposition of a regular BP Monitor for hypertensives. Zeo does the same for people with sleep disorders. Granted these offerings are perfect yet, but all vectors are aligned in the right direction. As for Glooko, look out J&J.
Scientific and medical research has seen explosive growth in the past few decades. Since 1996, the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) has maintained PubMed, a free portal providing access to references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. PubMed now has over 21 million citations going back to 1966, and continues to add a staggering amount (about 500,000 new records) each year. The chart below was adapted from a recently published journal article about PubMed.
Today, clinical professionals have tools (like Ovid, ScienceDirect, UpToDate, Trip) that help answer complex questions and are connected to validated knowledge bases derived off of sources like PubMed. But how does a patient, with no access or expertise in the domain find and leverage this information? Medify tries to solve that.
The value proposition of Medify is not easy to describe. In fact, the ‘What is Medify‘ description on the site was banal enough to be dismissed, just like most other online social health startup marketing. They do a better (albeit prolix) job on the ‘How it works‘ page. Medify will appeal to the well-informed patients who are not afraid to sift through piles of academic articles burdened with medical jargon to understand and manage their own disease. Medify gives them a dashboard of existing literature – with it they can monitor things like which treatments are gaining traction in the provider community, which institutions are on the forefront of relevant research, etc. Affiliated web 2.0 functionality like faceted search, social sharing, tracking, annotating are bundled in to make it more personal.
Under the hood, it is smartly leveraging what public knowledge bases are already out there. The citation and abstract are free from PubMed. Interstitial phrases and terms in the content are further linked to sources like Wikipedia and MeSH. Brief outcomes or summaries are synthetically constructed from the article text.
Medify is not alone. There are other sites that try to help patients navigate the vast sea of research literature. PubMed’s parent NLM runs MedLinePlus, UpToDate has a patient-oriented version, and niche startups like MyDailyApple, PatientsLikeMe are also tackling this to some extent.
In 2001 Brian Haynes, MD, PhD wrote an article describing the landscape of such ‘pre-appraised’ resources through a hierarchical structure that had four layers (called “4S” Model):
- Original ‘Studies’ (what PubMed provides) at the base
- ‘Syntheses’ (systematic reviews sources like The Chochrane Library) of evidence just above that
- ‘Synopses’ (like EBM, EBN Online) of studies and syntheses next up, and
- the most evolved evidence-based information ‘Decision Support Systems’ at the top.
He later expanded the model to 2 more layers (read about the “6S” paper here), but the basic argument remained same – Information seekers should begin looking at the highest level resource available for the problem that prompted their search. That is a good framework to understand why services like Medify are needed.
The skeptics would argue that offerings like Medify will do little more than empower hypochondriacs. But I believe that well-served health information only makes outcomes better. The lag time between published research being implemented in real-world medical practice can be in the order of decades. As consumers, we are entrusted to make choices about other important topics like money, and the market provides personal finance tools/services to help. Same can apply to healthcare, without diminishing the role of experts.
There have been plenty of success stories of online networks that help aggregate individuals with a common interest in a health condition. PatientsLikeMe, MedHelp, DailyStrength, Sermo to name some. So it was only a matter of time before we saw a network of networks. Something that went beyond a online community with singular focus.
Alliance Health offers services to create health-related social networks. So it’s like Ning (Marc Andreessen‘s online platform for custom social networks) for healthcare, except that users can’t self-service and start a health-related network on Alliance Health.
They currently operate separate networks on over 40 physical and mental health issues (see screenshot below). Each community offers the standard fare expected in a online social networking site- discussion forums, videos, posts, reviews, etc. The star performer in their portfolio is DiabeticConnect, which is reportedly the largest diabetic community online with around a million unique visitors monthly.
If you look at the top most active social networking websites today, there are hardly any entries related to health (DXY.cn, DailyStrength, CaringBridge are the only ones). Yet health information is one of the most commonly sought-after content online. So there is definitely scope and need for leveraging social features of internet for health. Doing so on a combined platform increases viability, since the mainstay of revenue for social networking is still advertising. Cumulative audience across all networks is a better sell to potential advertisers.
I have high hopes for Alliance Health. Once the user base is there (like in DiabeticConnect), there are significant revenue opportunities in data analytics and mining. Beyond niche topic-based networks, I think they can extend services to private organizations like large care delivery organizations, insurers to create white-label social networks.
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.
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.
Update 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..