Better Health, Delivered by Phone: Q&A with Stan Berkow

Sep 4, 2014, 2:36 PM

Recently NewPublicHealth shared an interview from AlleyWatch, a Silicon Valley technology blog about SenseHealth, a new medical technology firm that has created a text message platform that health care providers can use to communicate with patients. In May, SenseHealth was picked to be part of the New York Digital Health Accelerator, which gives up to $100,000 in funding to companies developing digital health solutions for patients and providers. The accelerator is run by the Partnership Fund for New York City and the New York eHealth Collaborative. SenseHealth engaged in a clinical trial last year that used the technology to help providers engage with patients who are Medicaid beneficiaries.

Health conditions supported by the SenseHealth platform range from diabetes to mental health diagnoses, while the messaging options include more than 20 customizable care plans, such as medicine or blood pressure monitoring reminders. There are also more than 1,000 supportive messages, such as a congratulatory text when a patient lets the provider know they’ve filled a prescription or completed lab work. The platform couples the content with a built-in algorithm that can sense when a user has logged information or responded to a provider, and providers are able to set specific messages for specific patients. Early assessments show that the technology has helped patient manage their conditions, with data showing more SenseHealth patients adhered to treatment plans and showed up for appointments than patients who didn’t receive the text program.

We received strong feedback on the post, including a question from a reader about whether Medicaid beneficiaries lose contact with their providers if they disconnect their cell phones or change their numbers, a common occurrence among low-income individuals who often have to prioritize monthly bills. To learn more about SenseHealth and its texting platform, NewPublicHealth recently spoke with the company’s CEO and founder, Stan Berkow.

NewPublicHealth: How did SenseHealth get its start?

Stan Berkow: We got started about two to two-and-a-half years ago. I met one of the other founders while I was working at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. We were both clinical trial coordinators and were seeing—first hand—the difficulties in getting participants in our studies to actually follow through on all the exercise and nutritional changes they needed to make in order to complete the research project. That led us to step back and look at the bigger health care picture and recognize the challenges for providers to help patients manage chronic conditions, and recognizing that there’s a huge time limitation on the providers. That pushed us toward finding a way through technology to help those providers help the patients they work with more effectively to prevent and manage chronic conditions.

NPH: How much training do patients need to use the platform?

Berkow: None. What we’ve seen is that a lot of people using it already text with their health care providers, and we’re just inserting ourselves into that behavior to ensure that they’re getting more information on a more consistent basis and that their provider is involved in that dynamic.

We are starting to build in different channels to work with different populations through actual phone calls or interactive voice response, for example for Medicare beneficiaries, or apps for more tech-savvy users. As we do continue to do that, I think we’ll need to look at how much instruction people may need. We believe we need to design our technology to meet people where they are as opposed to kind of imposing new types of communication.

NPH: Many Medicaid patients don’t have cell phones or will have cell phones disconnected and then reconnected with new numbers. Has that been a problem for you?

Berkow: People getting new phones or disconnecting old phones and getting new numbers has definitely been an interesting challenge to tackle, and it’s certainly something that we don’t have the end solution to. But one thing that does help is that our technology automatically gets an alert when a number becomes disconnected. And that allows us to alert the providers sooner when someone changes their number, so that ideally they can find another way to get in touch with them before that person becomes too disconnected from the health engagement process that they started. It’s not a foolproof solution, but we have been able find ways to alert the providers who are then on alert to ask for new phone information at the next appointment.

NPH: What is next for the company?

Berkow: We’re continuing to really try and make a big push within the Medicaid space and extend that out to larger patient groups in need of this type of support and technology. And as we do that, it does actually require us to think about different ways to reach people including, as I mentioned, smart phone apps for people who have a Smartphone and voice prompts for older patients. We are constantly looking to partner with more healthcare organizations working with Medicaid and Medicare populations as well as ensuring that our technology has all of the kind of features and tools that’s in place to effectively speak to patients in the way that will resonate best.

We view the technology really as an intermediary between the provider and patient. We’re not looking to displace the providers with technology, but rather to help make their lives easier so that they can work more consistently across larger number of patients, and I think that’s an important framing for a technology like ours.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.