Propeller Health Takes Off With Digital Tracker for Asthma

Propeller Health Takes Off With Digital Tracker for Asthma

The holiday season just past was a feast for the senses—decorations, scented candles, fresh-cut evergreens, and the happy faces of visitors. But all the household cleaning and holiday decorating can also set off an asthma attack, as some sufferers from the disease may have learned over the last month if they’ve been keeping careful daily records of their symptoms.

Many people, however, fail to scrupulously note down each time they reach for their rescue inhalers, if it means pulling out the pen-and-paper diaries traditionally recommended by doctors. That lack of data was frustrating to David Van Sickle, a former epidemiology service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and former academic researcher. Van Sickle knew that patients who understand what triggers their attacks—plants, dusty ornaments, cleaning products, exercise, workplace chemicals—could avoid emergency room visits and hospitalizations,

“You should basically live symptom-free, with current medications,” Van Sickle says.

While still a post-doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Van Sickle started working on a project to harness digital technology that would make symptom diaries easier for patients to keep. In 2010, he and two experienced IT entrepreneurs co-founded the Madison, WI-based company they originally called Asthmapolis, and recently renamed Propeller Health. The company’s mobile-connected recordkeeping service now covers both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which are often treated with the same medications.

The core of the Propeller Health platform is a data-collecting device that snaps onto one end of a medication inhaler. The Propeller sensor takes note every time the user takes a dose of medicine from the inhaler. It stores the time-stamped information, and wirelessly transmits it either to the user’s smart phone or to a Qualcomm base station plugged into the wall at home. When a smart phone is near enough to get the data immediately, its GPS sensor adds the location where the dose was needed. The Propeller platform then searches online sources such as the Weather Channel for possible environmental triggers in the neighborhood, Van Sickle says.

Patients receive individualized messages from Propeller Health, through their own online page, e-mails, text messages, or even snail-mail letters, to help them understand the patterns behind their daily symptoms and use of medications. The system might issue alerts when a patient enters a place where it would be advisable to take a preventive dose of rescue medication, for example.

Users can also opt to share the Propeller data with their doctors and family members. Doctors receive messages when the data suggest that a patient’s illness isn’t well controlled by their current drug regimen. The goal is to make sure patients have the prescriptions they need, and to remind them if they miss a dose. The company’s inhaler device and patient support platform received FDA clearance in July 2012.

The consequences can be severe when asthma is not well managed with medications, or when patients don’t ask for a doctor’s help in time.

“There can be a fatal outcome,” Van Sickle says. In COPD, a progressive disorder, any acute attack hastens the loss of lung function, he says.

Beyond the toll on individuals, the US healthcare system spends about $50 billion a year on each of the two respiratory illnesses. That cost could be reduced by avoiding preventable hospital admissions and emergency room visits, Van Sickle says. But at this point, more than 60 percent of the 25 million US asthma patients have inadequate control of their illness, Propeller Health estimates.

The financial burden increasingly falls on health care providers, because of cost-cutting incentives imposed by payers and federal health care reform. For example, by 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services may not compensate a hospital if a COPD patient is re-admitted within 30 days after they complete a previous hospital stay. Such financial pressures create a business opening for preventive care services.

“Propeller Health’s target customers are the entities at financial risk,” Van Sickle says. The potential customer base includes hospitals, health insurance plans, integrated health care systems, and physician provider groups that are paid fixed rates per capita for caring for their patients.

The startup’s business prospects looked good to The Social+Capital Partnership, a Palo Alto, CA venture firm, which invested $5 million in a Series A round for Propeller Health earlier this year. The startup had already raised over $2 million from … Next Page »

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The Author

Bernadette Tansey is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, CA.

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