How Your Smartphone Could Improve Your Health

Contestants compete in an early round during the 6th Annual LG US National Texting Championship August 8, 2012 in New York's Times Square. A 16-year-old boy retained his title as America's fastest texter Wednesday in a duel of the thumbs staged before yelling fans on New York's Times Square. Austin Weirschke took home $50,000 prize money for the second time in two years when he bested 10 other texting demons in feats of thumb speed, memory and fluency in texting shorthand. One round was performed with the remaining contestants blindfolded and having 45 seconds to type the verse: 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.' The event, sponsored by LG Electronics and using the company's cell phones, took place on a traffic island in Times Square.
National Journal
Alexis Hauk
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Alexis Hauk
Oct. 22, 2013, 1 a.m.

Only in the fresh-faced world of health care tech­no­logy start-ups could a 31-year-old CEO claim to be “a little old” com­pared to his peers, as An­mol Madan, the founder of Ginger.io, sheep­ishly con­fesses over the phone. He has some com­pany in the 28-year-old be­hind RxApps, John Moore III. Each heads a firm that is find­ing a foothold in the chan­ging world of health care tech­no­logy.

“Tech­no­logy is be­ing forced on care or­gan­iz­a­tions,” Moore says, cit­ing the Health In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy for Eco­nom­ic and Clin­ic­al Health Act of 2009, a pre­curs­or to Obama­care. The HITECH Act for the first time re­quires hos­pit­als to use elec­tron­ic med­ic­al re­cords. “Now that hos­pit­als and doc­tors are be­ing forced to use these fairly ba­sic soft­ware tools, there’s pres­sure to ad­opt more tools,” Moore says.

The Af­ford­able Care Act also shif­ted the in­cent­ives sys­tem for health care pro­viders in a way that en­cour­ages the de­vel­op­ment of new tech­no­lo­gic­al tools, mak­ing fund­ing avail­able for chal­lenge grants to test new care-de­liv­ery mod­els. “With so many people now be­ing in­sured, there is a much grander fo­cus on pop­u­la­tion health,” Moore writes in an email. “This means a big fo­cus on new ana­lyt­ics tools.”

Moore’s Bo­ston-based RxApps is a mo­bile plat­form de­signed to fa­cil­it­ate bet­ter com­mu­nic­a­tion between doc­tors and pa­tients. If a pa­tient is dia­gnosed with de­pres­sion, for ex­ample, Moore says the doc­tor will use RxApps to check in and see how the treat­ment plan is work­ing. The pa­tient will re­ceive a series of texted ques­tions tailored to the in­di­vidu­al and the is­sues he or she struggles with: Did she take her med­ic­a­tion? How many hours of sleep did he get?  

The be­ne­fits of these re­mind­ers work both ways. Moore, whose back­ground is in mo­lecu­lar bio­logy and ge­net­ics re­search, was in­spired to cre­ate RxApps after watch­ing friends and fam­ily go through treat­ment for which “doc­tors wer­en’t get­ting all of the in­form­a­tion to make fully in­formed treat­ment de­cisions,” he says. The free-to-use product re­cently went live, which means the firm can col­lect more data on how doc­tors and pa­tients com­mu­nic­ate. That will not only help them im­prove res­ults for users, but will also help the com­pany at­tract in­vestors, for whom cold, hard data is king.

RxApps trains po­ten­tial cli­ents to ask ques­tions that won’t put them at risk of breach­ing the HIPAA pri­vacy rules they are all sub­ject to. The user manu­al in­cludes in­struc­tions on cus­tom­iz­ing text mes­sages ac­cord­ing to those rules: “How is your mood?” rather than, “How is your de­pres­sion?”

Mean­while, An­mol Madan’s com­pany, Ginger.io, looks for pat­terns in phone us­age that could help an­swer that ques­tion. The Bo­ston-based firm is named after the root, with its famed medi­cin­al powers — a kind of in­ter­na­tion­al sym­bol for the kind of pre­vent­at­ive care that Madan would like his com­pany to rep­res­ent. (“.io,” was simply cheap­er than “.com.”)

The start-up har­nesses data from pa­tients’ phones to help pro­viders pre­dict how they’ll be­have dur­ing treat­ment. Us­ing this in­form­a­tion, Madan says, hos­pit­als and doc­tors can gain in­sight in­to how people, par­tic­u­larly with mood dis­orders or at­ten­tion de­fi­cit dis­order, are feel­ing and what kind of med­ic­al as­sist­ance they might need.

Pa­tients with de­pres­sion tend to isol­ate them­selves, which could ap­pear in a di­min­ished amount of out­put and in­ter­ac­tion on their phones. The soft­ware would re­cog­nize such a change in data pat­terns and re­lay this in­form­a­tion to con­cerned parties, which could, if pa­tients opt-in, in­clude fam­ily and friends. “We call it the ‘check en­gine light,’ which goes off when something’s wrong,” Madan says.

The idea for the com­pany came out of Madan’s Ph.D. work at the MIT Me­dia Lab; he wrote his thes­is “on mod­el­ing hu­man be­ha­vi­or us­ing mo­bile sensors.” In the two years since it was foun­ded, the com­pany has grown to 18 Bo­ston- and San Fran­cisco-based em­ploy­ees, most of them sci­ent­ists or en­gin­eers rather than med­ic­al school grads. Madan says Ginger.io cur­rently works with 12 hos­pit­als.

Keep­ing people’s most in­tim­ate in­form­a­tion se­cure is a key is­sue health care tech CEOs like Madan and Moore will face go­ing for­ward. “The whole be­ha­vi­or­al side of health — people are really touchy about that. People don’t want oth­er people to know that they have bi­polar [dis­order] or anxi­ety, be­cause so­ci­ety stig­mat­izes those con­di­tions,” says Moore. “We’ve made sure to en­crypt everything very well.”

“Those are all things that “¦ most en­gin­eers guard on a day-to-day basis,” says Madan. “The big­ger thing is what is your philo­sophy on that data and who [ul­ti­mately] owns that data.” And that’s a de­bate just get­ting star­ted.

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