When most people have a health question, they turn first to Google. Cue the fear, frustration and confusion and 100% certainty of a cancer diagnosis. Better, a startup backed by the esteemed Mayo Clinic, is launching this week with an unusual kind of subscription service that provides an expert personal health assistant at customers’ beck-and-call.
“Their job is take all of that complexity and fear and confusion out of the health care system,” says co-founder Geoff Clapp, a 15-year veteran in the field of remote patient monitoring. Usually, patients have no trusted advocate within the system working directly for their own interests. The closest analogue that exists is a “care coordinator” that hospitals sometimes assign to people with serious or chronic diseases, Clapp says.
Better is riding a new wave in health care–brought on by new technologies and the Affordable Care Act–that is for the first time empowering consumers to become more involved in managing their care. A few years ago, says Clapp, would have been too early for a consumer-driven health service like this. In a way, Better is a lot like AAA–a membership service that assists drivers on-the-road, even though they already have auto insurance. “I would never want to equate nurses to tow trucks, but the idea that there are services that work for the customer … just doesn’t exist in health care.”
For $50 a month, Better’s call center team including registered nurses from the Mayo Clinic, insurance claims experts, and senior care specialists will be tasked with answering questions that subscribers have about their own health or their family members’ health. Each subscriber gets assigned one personal coordinator to assist them over time. Questions can include everything from: “Who should I see near me about my nagging headache?” to “How can I cut through eight layers of bureaucracy to sort out this snarling insurance mixup?”
When a user signs up for a free version, they answer basic questions about their gender, age, and health. The more the app (now available in the iTunes store) knows about a person, the more it shares back information and articles that might be useful. The app largely relies on information from the Mayo Clinic’s databases, as well as its Symptom Checker tool. Using it, a person can get an idea of what doctor to see based on their symptoms and how urgently to go. The health assistant service, over the phone, web, or text, only comes with the paid subscription.
The system seems prone to abuse by hypochondriacs, but that’s a feature, not a bug, says Clapp. If someone is calling every day with different questions, that means they probably do have an underlying anxiety problem that needs to be addressed. And while the registered nurse assistants will do a lot–from recommending the best and most convenient doctor to see and even booking appointments–there are limits. They won’t diagnose conditions over the phone, for example.
Though the doctor’s office trip usually isn’t eliminated, in a way, it takes some of the “place” factor of health care out of the equation. “We’re at this really neat inflection point in health care. There’s more consumer dollars now, from health savings accounts and high-deductible plans,” says Clapp. “Every industry has been disrupted by mobile and the Internet by removing place as an issue … except health care.”