Jan 2, 2012
The US healthcare system is in crisis. Its cost is approaching 20% of GDP, crippling both public and private sectors. Increasing Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ entitlement costs are swamping the government’s funding ability, while ever rising insurance rates are compromising employers’ competitive viability. Yet our political system seems incapable of overcoming interests vested in the status quo to enact real reform. More than ever, we’re looking for technology to save us from a social and fiscal train wreck.
Fortunately, there are a few companies on the cusp of revolutionizing our healthcare industry. This series highlights entrepreneurs who are leading this revolution.
This first article profiles WellDoc Inc., maker of the first FDA-approved mobile healthcare (“mHealth”) product and a leader in chronic disease management. Co-founder and CEO, Ryan Sysko shares with MITER WellDoc’s story and his perspective on the future of healthcare.
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Treatment of chronic disease consumes 75% of our healthcare dollars. Diabetes alone accounted for a staggering $174 billion last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, with more than 26 million Americans afflicted by the disease, and nearly 80 million (35% of all adults) considered “pre-diabetic” by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the number of patients and their treatment costs are rapidly rising out of control. “The inability to effectively and efficiently manage chronic disease is a global pandemic of unsustainable proportions,” says WellDoc co-founder and CEO, Ryan Sysko. “The cost of managing chronic diseases is becoming an ever-larger percentage of global GDPs, and resources to manage the diseases are scarce.” Yet he’s convinced that “the use of technology will expand the reach of quality healthcare information in a way that is cost efficient and deployable.”
WellDoc’s product teaches patients how to manage their chronic disease in real time, at what Sysko calls “the right ‘teachable moment.’” In clinical trials so far, their product has had an astounding impact on patient outcomes.
That’s why WellDoc’s DiabetesManager®, the first mHealth product approved by the FDA for managing chronic disease, is revolutionary. In clinical trials recently published by the American Diabetes Association, patients with type II diabetes using DiabetesManager® experienced a 1.9% drop in A1C (the measure of average blood glucose control over the past three months), compared to a .7% drop in patients receiving ordinary treatment. That’s significant because every 1% improvement in A1C reduces the risk of diabetes-related complications such as eye, kidney and nerve disease by 37%. That translates into $7,200 in direct cost savings per patient per year, according to Sysko. When considering the long-term impact, cost savings are significantly greater as patients avoid complications such as kidney failure, heart disease and stroke, nerve damage, lower limb amputations, blindness, etc., that often require hospitalization and acute treatment. Widespread use of this one product would cut tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs each year while dramatically improving the health and living standards of millions of diabetes sufferers.
WellDoc started when Sysko’s sister and co-founder, Dr. Suzanne Sysko Clough, an endocrinologist at University of Maryland, became frustrated with traditional methods for treating her type II diabetes patients. For years, patients came into her office every few weeks to get feedback based on their handwritten diaries of their daily condition and practices between office visits. Disappointed with results from this approach because she couldn’t access patients’ current data and provide them with advice in real time to influence their behavior and treatment outside the office, she developed her own method to give patients real-time coaching and feedback on how to manage their disease via their mobile phone. One of her patients, a prominent Baltimore businessman, was so grateful and impressed with his personal results that he persuaded Sysko-Clough to commercialize her idea. He also provided the initial angel financing. She and her brother Ryan, then a tech executive in the banking sector, made a formidable founding team.
It’s a simple, yet ingenious concept. DiabetesManager® provides automated, real-time behavioral patient coaching and clinical decision support for patients and doctors using any wireless device or computer. Patients input personal health information, such as medication use, exercise regimen, glucose data, diet, and mood through an application on their mobile device. They receive immediate feedback from the WellDoc application. Doctors also have access to this data and can monitor and message their patients. At the heart of WellDoc’s product is a software system that uses complex clinical, behavioral and psychosocial algorithms to trend patient data and provide real-time advice and support. It engages patients in positive behavior change and helps doctors provide real time treatment recommendations outside office visits.
Sysko is quick to point out that “WellDoc builds products not programs”. He believes this is the key to WellDoc’s commercial success. “It’s not a matter of a patient needing to participate in a program”, he says, “but rather the patient choosing to use our product. This subtle but important distinction pushes us to build products that prove relevant and effective, and stand on their own merits — not unlike the standard for any consumer product. People use products that work and they quickly lose interest in those that don’t.”
This also helps explain the success of WellDoc’s business model. They’ve persuaded payers to treat DiabetesManager® not as a software program, but as a treatment that qualifies for payer reimbursement similar to other therapeutic interventions devices. This is good for WellDoc’s bottom line as well as for physicians and patients. Insurers are enthusiastic because it dramatically and predictably lowers costs. At the same time, reimbursement is critical to drive adoption by patients and doctors.
Tackling diabetes is a big enough challenge, but Sysko sees a much bigger future. He notes that WellDoc’s platform is adaptable to any chronic disease. Already in the pipeline are products for managing other chronic conditions such as asthma, pain management and oncology. “By fundamentally restructuring healthcare to come to the patient when and where they need it, and to support not just their medication regimen, but also their mental and behavioral attributes, says Sysko, WellDoc will unlock value and produce positive clinical outcomes never before thought possible.”
Let’s hope he and other healthcare entrepreneurs are right.