Alongside the vast medical-record databases and statewide health-insurance exchanges, a more personalized, mobile side of the health care information technology sector is growing.
It’s exemplified by local startups such as Care Thread, Thryve and Sproutel, three recent Betaspring alumni now in the process of launching new mobile health care tools.
While on one level the three companies’ products are yet another example of the digital-communications revolution, their long-term visions point to a future health care system where patients have more information and a more active role in their care.
“Our company believes in a customer-focused approach,” said Hannah Chung, chief creative officer and co-founder of Sproutel, which makes interactive toys that teach kids with chronic diseases how to manage them. “We want to know what parents want and think is working.”
Thryve makes photographic smartphone diet logs that allow users to keep a detailed and accurate record of what they eat and how it makes them feel, then share it with their doctor or nutritionist.
Of the three startups, Care Thread’s mobile messaging system for hospitals is the only one built for an institutional, and not consumer, user.
But in the long term, the system’s goal of making medical information more mobile (with extensive security protections) and electronically accessible has the clear potential to result in better-informed patients, as well as doctors and nurses.
“This is information patients are interested in and is something we can also share outside the hospital,” said Scott Guelich, CEO of Care Thread. “Ultimately there are also opportunities to extend into outpatient space when we build more robust systems.”
At a basic level, Care Thread is tackling the puzzling question of why doctors still rely on pagers, devices that have become otherwise as rare as mobile phones have become ubiquitous.
According to Guelich, the persistence of pagers in hospitals is a result of legacy systems, sketchy wireless signals in some old hospitals and security concerns.
The result is doctors on pagers, nurses using their own communication systems and other departments, such as pharmacists, using another.
In large hospitals, this means clinicians often don’t know who else is assigned to each patient and how to get in touch with them, to say nothing of sharing medical records. Many hospital errors occur as a result of issues that arise when responsibilities are handed off from one clinician to another.
“We break down the silos,” Guelich said. “We have one system they can use to communicate, share critical information faster and know who the people on each care team are, which is a big issue.”
By creating secure smartphone systems that can be used on medical staff members’ personal phones or tablets without fear of data breach, Care Thread hopes hospitals will see cost savings from getting rid of pagers and streamlining care.
Studies have found that American hospitals spend $230 million on pager systems each year and lose up to $12 billion annually due to communications inefficiencies, including nurses waiting for pagers to be answered or waiting for a doctor to sign off on a treatment, Guelich said.
While Care Thread isn’t the only company trying to address this issue – the pager-service companies have their own ventures – Guelich said the company’s software aims to be the most deeply integrated between different hospital functions.
Ultimately, Guelich said the system could be used to help share information with patients, their primary-care doctors and outside specialists to better coordinate care.
In addition to three founding members, Care Thread hired a marketing director this summer and is now “in sales mode,” Guelich said. The company’s system has already been integrated with one hospital and is in negotiations with three others, he said.
Founded by two Northwestern University students who moved to Providence for a Brown fellowship, Sproutel is searching for a factory to gear up for a production launch of its first product, Jerry the Bear, early next year.
Jerry is a stuffed bear with a touch-screen computer in its chest that talks to children with diabetes, teaching them about blood glucose, testing and proper diet.
Like the products from Thryve and Care Thread, Jerry can upload data from a child’s responses to a parent or doctor’s computer or smartphone, letting them know how well the child is learning to manage their condition.
While Sproutel started with diabetes, the company – which recently raised a seed round of funding and is looking to hire a mobile developer - expects to expand into other conditions such as asthma or obesity and integrate the system with other toys.
The genesis of Thryve’s mobile food-coach program, which launched on the iPhone this year, was co-founder Nicole Mercer’s 12-year battle with undiagnosed gluten, dairy and sugar intolerance.
Mercer first created the program for an industrial-design class at Rhode Island School of Design before expanding it. Thryve is currently working on launching the application for Andriod and is looking to raise money.
“I was sick for 12 years of my life and couldn’t figure out why,” Mercer said. “If I had something like this, it wouldn’t have happened.”
The Thryve program gives the user a platform to create an online log of what they have eaten and how they felt 90 minutes later, then keeps a running breakdown of their diet by food group and compares it with a healthy eating plan from Harvard.
Unlike traditional food logs that rely on written descriptions of each meal, the Thryve program attaches photos of each meal to the log.
As a result, when a doctor or nutritionist reviews the log, they have an objective visual record as well as the self-reported written description.
“The advantage is it is so visual,” Mercer said. “A lot of people try to describe what they ate, but it is difficult to describe.”
Right now the Thryve application is free but Mercer expects to develop a premium subscription service.
Like the products from the other local companies, Thryve’s program allows individuals to become more active participants in their care by giving them more information. •