Monthly Archives: April 2016

Listen app: ResApp diagnoses respiratory ailments

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I’m intrigued by an Australian company, ResApp that has developed a smartphone app to diagnose respiratory diseases by analyzing the sound signatures of coughs. The company has just completed an oversubscribed fundraising round, so I guess I’m not the only one who finds it interesting.

I interviewed the CEO, Dr. Tony Keating via email, and his answers are below. Meanwhile, check out the demo for their consumer-facing product.

What is ResApp? from ResApp Health on Vimeo.

Q1. What unmet need does ResApp serve? How big is the need?

ResApp is developing digital health solutions for the diagnosis and management of respiratory disease (e.g. pneumonia, bronchiolitis, asthma, COPD). We estimate that every year more than 700 million doctor visits result in the diagnosis of a respiratory disease within the OECD, in the US the number is 125 million visits. Pneumonia in particular costs the US hospital system $10.5 billion annually. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1 million children die of pneumonia in the developing world every year, with a large portion attributed to the lack of availability of a low cost diagnostic tool. 

Current diagnosis of these disease is costly and time consuming (consider that an x-ray for pneumonia diagnosis in the US costs more than $200 and can take up to an hour in an emergency department), and there are also many areas where current diagnostic tools are unavailable. Our initial focus is to provide an accurate remote diagnostic capability to telehealth where even the stethoscope is not available to physicians. 

Q2. How does the system work?

ResApp’s technology is based on the premise that cough and breathing sounds carry vital information on the state of the respiratory tract. We use machine learning algorithms that analyze the sound of a patient’s cough. Our algorithms are able to match signatures that are within a patient’s cough with a disease diagnosis. An analogy might be how speech recognition algorithms match speech to text, or how Shazam’s algorithms look for signatures in music to identify the artist and title. 

Q3. Who came up with the idea? How?

The technology was developed by Dr Udantha Abeyratne and his team at The University of Queensland. Dr Abeyratne and his team have been engaged in the R&D of the technology since 2009. They were initially funded by a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate if mobile phones could be used to diagnose pneumonia in the developing world. The initial idea was to take the latest advances in speech recognition technology and couple them with physicians’ in-depth knowledge of cough and breathing sounds to develop a diagnostic test that could be delivered at low cost to patients in the developing world. 

Q4. You started as a telehealth app but are now looking to serve physicians for in-person visits, such as in the emergency room. Why?

Our focus remains on providing a remote diagnostic test to be used alongside a telehealth consultation. However we have seen great interest from physicians for use in in-person visits, such as in the ER. The potential of our technology to provide an instant and highly accurate differential diagnosis of respiratory disease is seen as a way to greatly improve the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. In addition, healthcare payers could potentially realize significant cost savings versus traditional diagnostic tests (such as chest x-ray). 

Q5. The app doesn’t require any additional hardware. Is a smartphone really good enough to serve as a medical device?

Our clinical study, run out of two major Australian hospitals, has demonstrated very high levels of accuracy (both sensitivity and specificity) in diagnosis from recordings taken using the microphone on the smartphone. We are simply using the smartphone as an efficient platform for delivering a clinical-quality medical diagnostic device. The FDA has approved over 100 mobile medical apps, including a number that diagnose a disease. 

Q6. Your initial focus is on diagnostics. Do you also plan to offer tools for ongoing management? 

Yes, our recent fundraising allows us to accelerate our plans to develop tools for ongoing management of the chronic respiratory diseases asthma and COPD. We see an opportunity to potentially measure the severity of these conditions on a more regular basis than what is done today. We also see the opportunity to deliver these management tools to all smartphone users who suffer from these conditions, without the need to purchase additional hardware (or perhaps also just as importantly, without the need to carry a second device). 

Q7. What geographic markets are you serving? Are you worried you are spreading yourself to thin?

Our focus is the US telehealth market, although our recent funding extends our US market into the in-person use by a physician. In both of these instances, we are still providing the diagnostic result to the physician, not directly to the patient, so our clinical studies and FDA submissions are essentially unchanged. We have recently seen growth in telehealth, in particular in Europe and Australia and will be working through the regulatory process in those regions in parallel to the US regulatory process.

Q8. What’s to prevent someone else from copying what you are doing?

The university has filed a patent application (which ResApp has a worldwide exclusive license to) describing the method and apparatus of respiratory disease diagnosis using sound. The machine learning algorithms that we use also require a significant amount of high quality clinical data, which we have generated from our multiple clinical studies. 

Q9. Anything else to add?

ResApp’s technology, originally developed by a world-class team at one of the world’s leading universities, provides an opportunity to deliver a clinical-quality medical diagnostic test for respiratory disease to everybody who has a smartphone in their pocket. While we’ve talked a lot about the opportunities in the US, Europe and Australia, we must remember that there are also billions of people in the developing world who do not have access to quality healthcare. We have recently partnered with a leading global humanitarian organization to help bring a high accuracy, low cost diagnostic test for pneumonia to those people and to try to reduce the number of children who die from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases every year in the developing world. 

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Good riddance: United finally gives up on ACA marketplaces

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United we hardly knew ye

United Healthcare announced that it’s exiting most of the Obamacare insurance marketplaces (aka exchanges) next year. Sound like a familiar story? In fact all the recent news coverage is just a rehash of last November’s announcement that United was probably going to exit.

As I wrote at the time (United pulls out of ACA exchanges: Should we care?), United’s exit is not a huge deal. The company specializes in selling high-priced plans to corporate accounts. In the price-sensitive world of the exchanges that’s a losing proposition. No surprise — United wasn’t getting traction.

In January (Like I said: United’s ACA exchange departure is no big deal) I reported on a study that showed that the name brand, high priced commercial players like United were losing out to insurers with a Medicaid managed care background and to mission-oriented Blues plans. United’s departure represents the failure of United, not the failure of the marketplaces. If United says otherwise it’s a sore loser.

Health plans thinking of competing in the marketplaces should say this to themselves a few times before diving in: “Exchange business is price sensitive business. If we can’t compete on price we might as well stay home.”

Now, if United were a little more clever and capable it actually could make a play for the exchange business, in a way that would boost its success in the commercial market as well. In particular, there are opportunities to better manage the way specialty care is delivered and paid for, by emulating the approaches used by the most efficient and innovative specialists. This would drive down the overall cost of insurance and improve care for patients. Some astute players in the bundled payments space are starting to figure it out. Somehow I don’t think United will be the one to make it happen.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Health Wonk Review is up at Health System Ed

Peggy Salvatore has posted the Early Bird Catches the Worm edition of the Health Wonk Review at Health System Ed. She’s taken an interesting approach by posting in the order the submissions were received. You’ll see my post way down at the bottom, which may explain why I’m wormless.

 

Urgent care billing: Eyebrows raised

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An unhealthy discount

My wife was sick a few weekends ago so I took her to the Beth Israel urgent care clinic in Chestnut Hill where they diagnosed her with the flu. Nice modern facility. In network. Convenient parking. You get the idea. Care was good, but slow.

Then a few days ago, I received an Explanation of Benefits (EoB) from my health plan.

One reason to go to urgent care is that it’s more cost effective than the emergency room. In this case BI sent Blue Cross a bill for $1328. Blue Cross marked it down to $365.81, subtracted our co-pay ($35) and deductible ($231.68) and sent BI payment for a whopping $99.13.

In looking at the bill I was most struck by a couple line items. Microbiology/lab was billed at $202.00 and reimbursed at $26.48, or 13%. And Technical Component (maybe for an ultrasound?) was billed at $427.00 and paid at $22.33, or 5%.

Although medical charges (i.e., what’s billed) are known to be detached from reality, I found this EoB particularly galling. How can I explain my visceral reaction, especially to the $427 charge being reimbursed at $22.33?

  • If something is billed for $427 but reimbursed at just $22, it seems that BI is overcharging or Blue Cross is underpaying. Or is it both?
  • What happens to the poor schlub who’s out of network, or worse, lacks insurance? Is the $427 from rare patients like that –who pay 20x what Blue Cross pays– accounting for more than 100% of the center’s profits?
  • Is what I see on the EoB actually the economic reality behind the transaction? Or is BI or my wife’s BI practice being paid a capitated amount for her care and is this bill only meaningful for calculating our cost?
  • What is a patient who’s interested in “transparency” and “cost effectiveness” supposed to think? Did we do the right thing by going to urgent care or not? I think it would have been a lot more useful to see a comparison between the actual urgent care visit cost and a hypothetical visit to the ER or physician office

Ok, I’m feeling a little better now.

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

KaloBios bows to the price pressure Gods (I’m quoted)

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Pharma bad boy Martin Shkreli, formerly CEO of KaloBios Pharmaceuticals put the company in an uncomfortable spot with plans to jack the price of a drug for Chagas disease.

Today Fierce PharmaMarketing features me in its story explaining what’s going on at KaloBios and the implications for the broader industry. (In Shkreli’s aftermath, KaloBios vows fair pricing. Will others follow its lead?)

The company has really abased itself, essentially putting forward a plan to act like a non-profit. The industry as a whole won’t be following that maneuver! In the story I share my view that pharma has boxed itself in by focusing too much on the cost of R&D. The newer argument that drugs save the system money is a little better, but still not good enough. Overall the industry seems too reluctant to assert that innovation should be rewarded.

I shared my thoughts in a longer piece last week (Is pharma industry too meek on pricing?)

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

The decline of white women’s health

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The Washington Post (A great divide in American death: Statistics show widening urban-rural gap) examined death statistics and found that death rates for white women –especially rural white women– have been climbing fast. Key culprits? Self-destructive behavior such as over-eating, opioid abuse, heavy drinking, smoking, and suicide. White women still live longer than other groups, but the trend for them is bad.

According to the Post:

In at least 30 counties in the South, black women in midlife now have a lower mortality rate than middle-aged white women, The Post found. That’s up from a single such county in 1999.

Among them is Newton County, Ga., southeast of Atlanta, where the death rate for black women ages 35 to 54 dropped from 472 per 100,000 to 234. The rate for white women went the other way, from 255 to 472.

The article cites researchers who speculate that new sources of stress are contributing to poor health and higher death rates.

The Post also connects areas with rising white death rates to those supporting Donald Trump’s presidential bid. That makes intuitive sense to me, although I don’t know whether there’s a causal link. What I will say is that those who vote for Donald Trump are going to be disappointed that he won’t be a stress reliever, even if he is somehow elected.

Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Uber the ambulance chaser

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Uber and to a lesser degree Lyft have decimated the taxi industry with a disruptive model that lowers costs, improves service, and identifies the few bad apples among drivers and passengers. Now both companies are venturing into a niche market that’s in need of serious reform: medical transportation.

Some patients need help to get to their medical appointments and Medicaid and Medicare step in as needed to pay for transportation. However, too often a patient is transported in an expensive limo or even an ambulance when a regular car would have been fine. The government recognizes the problem and has taken some steps to clean up the business, but it’s tough going.

I’m not exactly sure how Uber and Lyft will tackle the intricacies of the business, but they are diving in:

  • Boston Children’s John Brownstein has helped form Circulation, which will use the Uber network to provide rides to medical visits to seniors and those with disabilities. Medicaid will provide coverage
  • In New York, Lyft has been working with the National Medtrans Network on a pilot program

These services will be valuable in their own right because they are likely to reduce costs and improve service. But the downstream value to the healthcare system is even greater: if patients can get to and from appointments more reliably it may well reduce overall medical costs and improve outcomes.

Finally, it’s helpful for patients to have their medical appointments bracketed by state-of-the-art service experiences, since it will encourage patients and maybe medical offices to strive for the same service levels in their medical care. Kind of like how Disney pulls up all customer service in the Orlando area.

Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.