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?).