13 Reasons to Be Optimistic About Healthcare, Courtesy of Rock Health

There are many reasons to fear that the healthcare crisis in this country is going to get worse—a lot worse—before it gets better. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, with costly knock-on effects from heart disease to diabetes. The overall cost of care seems to be spiraling upward unstoppably. The FDA is so weighed down by bureaucratic caution that it’s slowing drug and medical-device innovation to a standstill. The Supreme Court might be on the verge of striking down the only real attempt to fix healthcare delivery in decades.

And yet—when you look around places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley, you see so many passionate young entrepreneurs with ideas for improving the system that you can’t help feeling a little better about the future. Last night I went to the 2012 demo day for Rock Health, the San Francisco- and Boston-based startup accelerator focused on the healthcare industry. In a two-hour session held at Practice Fusion’s new downtown headquarters, 13 companies (pictured above right) shared their ideas for helping consumers lead healthier lives and making care delivery easier for healthcare professionals. Maybe it’s just a case of infectious enthusiasm, but I came away feeling that if even half of these ideas take hold, the U.S. will be a healthier, happier place.

Here are 13 reasons to feel good about the future of healthcare—one for each company.

1. There are organizations and brands out there who want to reward you for making healthy choices in your life. AchieveMint is building a system that lets users of mobile apps earn points when they do health-promoting things like checking in at a gym, logging a run on their Fitbit device, or saving a healthy recipe on Epicurious. The points can be redeemed for gift cards, merchandise, or cash, with insurers and other companies footing the bill in return for branding opportunities. (It’s a little like Kiip for health.)

2. It’s getting easier for doctors to figure out the right diagnosis or the right treatment for every patient. Agile Diagnosis, which completed the Y Combinator incubator program before joining Rock Health and has already raised $2.5 million in funding, is building a browser- and tablet-based platform that walks doctors through diagnostic algorithms that can help them spot rare conditions and be sure they’re adhering to best-practices guidelines. Reducing misdiagnoses would save the medical system hundreds of billions of dollars per year in added costs, says Agile co-founder Borna Safabakhsh.

3. Getting a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be such a lonely experience. Avva is working on an online tool that helps cancer patients manage the social, emotional, and educational sides of their situations, as well as the treatment side. The company is starting out with a focus on helping breast cancer patients prepare for doctor visits by preparing customized, printable list of questions. It expects to make money by using the system to help pharmaceutical companies recruit patients for clinical trials.

4. Your smartphone is evolving into a powerful diagnostic tool. Virtually every sensor in a smartphone, beginning with the camera, can be used to monitor health data. That’s exactly what Cardiio is working on. Co-founder Ming-Zher Poh, a former MIT Media Lab researcher, has designed software that can determine a person’s heart rate just by scanning their face for a few seconds through the iPhone’s camera. (There will be a Cardiio app in the iTunes App Store soon.) The same technology could be used for telemedicine, neonatal monitoring, and exercise tracking, says Poh.

5. There are easy ways to cut the readmission rate for senior citizens discharged from the hospital. Right now, one in three of all Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries released from hospitals end up readmitted within 30 days. Care at Hand is working on tablet software that could help home health aids make sure doctors know when patients recovering at home are having a health flareup or have stopped taking their medications (a frequent cause of complications and readmission).

6. If you’re a woman, it’s about to get easier and more fun to find health information online. Sites like WebMD and Wikipedia often present data about gynecological issues and other women’s health matters in a sterile, confusing way. ChickRx is a new personalized health and welness platform built for women, by women. Women can browse existing content (“written in a humorous, we-get-it tone,” according to the founders) or submit public or anonymous questions for experts. If the solution involves a product, ChickRx will provide the opportunity to buy it, making the service into a shopping and e-commerce play.

7. It turns out that some mental health treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, are just as effective when delivered online as they are when delivered in person. Cognitive Health Innovations offers subscription-based online therapy tools that walk users through cognitive-behavioral solutions to their everyday stresses, or connect them with their therapists via secure messaging. “We believe the Internet is the new frontier for mental health treatment,” says co-founder Josh Susser.

8. Your doctor could soon have much easier access to the exploding supply of medical literature. It’s difficult and expensive for doctors to keep up with the latest science in their fields. Docphin is aggregating articles from over 500 medical journals in an online “medical news platform” that curates content based on each user’s interests. The service is available only to doctors at academic medical centers so far, but in its demo day presentation Docphin announced a new enterprise version that will be available to any medical center.

9. There are people out there who want to reward you for making healthy choices in your life. No, this isn’t a retread of item No. 1. It’s about HealthRally, a crowdfunding platform designed to help people achieve health goals by making it easier for their friends and family to rally around them and pledge cash rewards. A reward as low as $200 can triple success rates for people who are trying to quit smoking, says founder Zack Lynch, and can quintuple success in reaching weight-loss goals. The startup makes money by keeping a 7 percent cut of each reward.

10. For patients who can’t afford the copayments on expensive drugs, there’s still a way to get needed medications. Medmonk, another former Y Combinator company, is creating a Web-based database that pharmacists can consult for discount codes provided by pharmaceutical companies. “For a medication that costs $400, the pharmaceutical company will happily pay a $50 copay, because it means they’re going to get the other $350 from an insurance company,” explans founder Somaira Punjwani.

11. Your doctors will soon be able to access your CTs, X-rays, and other medical images in high resolution on their iPads. Nephosity has come up with a way to liberate medical images from the slow, expensive picture archive and communications systems (PACS) made by companies like GE, Philips, Siemens, and Fujifilm. Not only can doctors pan and zoom through the images on their tablets, but two doctors can collaborate remotely by sharing access to the same image in real time. Eventually, Nephosity hopes to replace the traditional PACS vendors.

12. Soon we could all be wearing 24/7 diagnostic arrays on our skin. Wearable wireless patches made by Sano Intelligence sample blood through microneedles and perform blood chemistry assays, relaying the results to doctors continuously. The company plans to test the technology first on hobbyists and athletes, then on patients participating in clinical trials. Distributing the patches to everyone with a medical condition could eventually form “a basis for a future model of health care” based on continuous monitoring, says co-founder Raj Gokal. The company plans to compete in the Nokia Sensing X Challenge.

13. It’s getting easier to set up an exercise regimen and adhere to it. Almost two-thirds of Americans get no exercise at all. (Likely the same two-thirds who are overweight.) Part of the problem is that it’s hard to design an exercise program that you can stick to week after week. Sessions offers an exercise coaching program that connects subscribers with coaches who help them develop and update realistic, 7-day plans that are integrated with their work schedules. In a pilot program in February involving 50 testers, the program helped people increase their exercist time by 35 percent, says founder Nick Crocker. The secret sauce at Sessions, he says, is achieving the “right mix of content, tone, timing, frequency, and medium” to keep users highly engaged.

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Most of the teams emerging from Rock Health, with the exception of Agile Diagnosis, are in search of seed or Series A funding. Only two—Sessions and AchieveMint—have revenue so far, but all of the rest mentioned plausible ways to earn some (and that was definitely a first for me, after about five years of attending demo days like this one). Maybe none of these companies will change the world fundamentally—but all of them are doing something fundamentally useful. And it could be that myriad incremental changes, if they’re going on in enough corners of the industry, will add up to a new healthcare system that we can live with.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Civisisus

    Nice article Wade. Suggestions:
    #4 to #1#5 – easy? no#7 need considerably more science to say this#10 – 1/2 hour to discount solution? failentries that seem likely to make $? 0 – though as you point out, a few at least have a plausible path to revenue.nice efforts by the kids, but frankly youtube-duration attention spans aren’t really suited to solving genuine health challenges. My advice: stick to games