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  • 08.14.14

An App That Lets Diabetics Share Supplies And Advice

With HelpAround, a patient community is going beyond online forums and actually helping each other in the real world.

An App That Lets Diabetics Share Supplies And Advice
[Top: Zvonimir Atletic via Shutterstock]

Online patient communities can be a huge help for anyone struggling with chronic disease. But many of the most popular communities are relegated to message boards that are most easily accessed via computer. HelpAround, an app that’s calling itself “the first sharing economy service for consumer health,” is bringing online community to the mobile app world–with a few twists.

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When HelpAround first emerged last summer, it had an ambitious plan: use data analytics methods from the advertising world in an app that taps members of your Twitter and Facebook social network to figure out who can help with things you need, from getting a handyman to fix a plumbing issue to simply finding a neighbor with a spare Advil. That didn’t exactly go as planned. “We learned that not all communities are that keen on helping each other, unfortunately,” says Yishai Knobel co-founder and CEO of HelpAround.

Flickr user Alisha Vargas

After testing the app in various neighborhoods and communities, the HelpAround team decided to focus on the diabetes community. “The big learning point was in the idealism of strangers helping strangers. We found that chronic conditions generate camaraderie that gets people to sign up,” says Knobel.

Log in to the app today, and there’s already a big community of diabetics, even though the service just launched in mid-July. There are multiple layers to the community: a local, social layer that reveals people using the app around you (users can also join different communities–there’s one for Type 1, one for Type 2, one for young adults, and so on) and the professional layer, which offers 24/7 access to nurses via a call center. App users get three free calls a month.

“A lot of people on our system don’t have insurance, and they come here as alternative. We’re finding a really interesting market inefficiency,” says Knobel.

There are lively conversations already happening among members of the HelpAround community. Ideally, those conversations move into the real world, too. The app’s “Ask” feature allows users to request not just for online advice, but also for supplies. If a user forgets her blood glucose test strips while at a friend’s house, for example, she can send out a call for a neighbor to provide them.

Would all of this actually be useful for a diabetic? Rachel Gillett, a Fast Company writer and type 1 diabetic, thinks it could be. Diabetes is a lonely disease, she points out, and a virtual support group could be useful in getting candid answers to questions from fellow diabetics–instead of canned ones from doctors who don’t have firsthand experience with the disease. Plus, the feature that allows users to request supplies might be invaluable if it works.

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“I can’t begin to tell you the amount of times a pharmacy has been closed or out of supplies or my prescription has run out and it’s the weekend, so no doc around to call in a refill. Or how many times I’ve been on a road trip and realized I forgot something and I’m not due a refill on yet, so I can’t even stop into a Walgreens and pick something up (technically, I could, but insurance wouldn’t cover it and I would be out about $600 for one box of insulin),” she writes.

Gillett notes, however, that the potential is there for the app to make people reliant on the hospitality of others.

A service like this requires a critical mass of users. There is a cluster of at least six other users within a mile of my home in San Francisco, though none seem to have posted anything in the app recently. Knobel says there are plenty of users even in less dense areas. “Right now you can be in Arkansas and find someone within 10 miles,” he says.

Before moving onto other chronic conditions, HelpAround plans to grow its diabetes community even further.

“Many startups have paid a big price for going too broad,” says Knobel. “Right now, we have the fortune of having such a supportive community.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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