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Will This Doctor In Your Pocket Cure Your Cyberchondria?

Ada Health’s new AI app vows to be a better health helper than just punching in what ails you to Google—but it still won’t replace your doctor.

Will This Doctor In Your Pocket Cure Your Cyberchondria?

Maybe it’s a peculiar rash, a consistent cough, or mind-numbing, news-induced headache–whatever the ailment, you know your next step. Much like 80% of Americans, you take to the web and, soon, you’re freaking out.

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“While Google is powerful tool for generalized information search, it’s not the best tool to help you find out what’s wrong with your health,” says Daniel Nathrath, cofounder and CEO of Ada Health, an AI-driven app that helps you to figure out what’s wrong.

What ends up happening, says Nathrath, is that info-hungry consumers end up “unnecessarily worried,” thinking they’ve contracted some rare, incurable disease. That anxiety funnels down to the doctor visit, where they take up general practitioners’ time with talk of ailments that are no way relevant to that individual. Cyberchondria, as it’s called, is a growing concern for healthcare practitioners. It’s estimated that one-third of U.S. care is spent on unnecessary medical services.

“Doctors basically have an uphill battle explaining to the patient that they’re not dying from some crazy disease,” says Nathrath. “Their concerns are not so much with having informed patients—rather having misinformed patients.”

And that’s because Google search is not a tool built for medical purposes, stresses Nathrath. It may be useful as a complementary tool, but he “wouldn’t trust Google or WebMD to really get an accurate picture of human health.”

To satisfy the morbidly curious, Nathrath created Ada Health in 2016. The iOS and Android app offers a mix of personalized artificial intelligence and medical expertise for users to check symptoms. One simply inputs personal health data–such as weight, allergies, medication info–and details about what’s bothering them. Then an algorithm leads the user through a set of comprehensive questions–sometimes as many as 15–to investigate what the symptoms could mean.

Ada Health released its consumer app a year ago and it already boasts 2.5 million downloads. It secured the No. 1 spot in the iOS Apple Store medical category in 130 countries, including Germany, China, and the U.K. The app comes in four languages: English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

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It essentially serves as a pre-screening device for doctors. (Ada Health recently retired a U.K. program where one one could set up a tele-health call with an on-staff doctor for further insight or a prescription. Instead,  it will offer a range of online and in-person services via customers’ healthcare partners in the near future. ) The startup raised $40 million in a Series A funding last fall.

Nathrath doesn’t fault our Google habits, especially since the average American waits an average of 24 days to see a doctor. In fact, due to physician shortages, wait times have increased 30% since 2014, according to a 2017 Merritt Hawkins healthcare industry report.

“Quite naturally, people really have a desire to find out what’s going on with them . . . and they don’t want to wait weeks to find out,” says Nathrath. “We really see that there’s a strong demand for something like Ada where you can get immediate answers and accurate answers to your questions.”

Ada’s symptoms assessment, however, is not to be considered an official medical diagnosis. “Our assessments are developed purely for informative purposes in order to help people better understand their health,” reads the frequently asked questions section of the company website.

This allows the Berlin-based startup to exist within a protected range–claiming to be nearly as powerful as a medical practitioner, without taking the full responsibility. (In general, medical chatbots and AI systems are exempt from FDA regulation.)

Ada is careful to state probabilities, without offering a full diagnosis or action plan. Dr. Douglas Miller, professor of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta and the CEO of CEO Cognitive Diagnosis, an AI/cognitive technology company, says that’s because current machine learning still has its limitations.

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“[Suggesting] next steps are what distinguish machines from humans, AI from doctors,” Miller tells Fast Company. While the technology isn’t there just yet, he believes it’s likely a work in progress, though AI isn’t “going to be replacing [doctors] at this moment.”

Ada doesn’t count doctors or medical websites as competitors, instead viewing itself somewhere in between, although Nathrath suggests that, soon, AI could surpass doctor ability.

Dr. Robert Pearl, former CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, and author of Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Health Care—and Why We’re Usually Wrong, doesn’t disagree. He believes that real opportunity lies in machine learning, a future in which a computer could surpass the human brain and human experience–without the drawbacks of biases. The issue, however, is inaccessibility to data. Most patient data is either unavailable (or not digitized), making it impossible for machines to track the care delivery process.

But, predicts Pearl, “the machines will develop this capacity to be able to be as good or even better than physicians. They need the data to do that.”

The company began with more humble beginnings–as an AI medical resource for medical professionals (versus other medical apps that really began more as chatbots for consumer telehealth services). It’s one of several symptom checker bots on the market, including Babylon, Buoy, and YourMd.

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The company spent the last three years testing thousands of textbook medical cases, including both common and rare diseases. They then also gave such cases to doctors to compare feedback. “It learns faster and it doesn’t forget,” says Nathrath.

Ada Health’s CEO envisions a world inching away from the traditional medical model in which the doctor is the only authority on one’s health. He sees digital consumers taking control of their health: “They’re becoming more empowered.” Ada could help medical institutions scale their business by becoming the entry point into the medical assessment system, thereby decreasing patient screening time.

Already, several U.S. medical institutions and hospitals are looking at the technology for GP use. “Doctors recognize that this is actually something that can help them do their job better,” says Nathrath.

.The company sees trends across countries: India has more male users, while the U.S., for example, sees more female users setting up profiles for their partners or children. But the most striking trend remains the amount of mental health cases–almost a third of cases involve some mental wellness component. There’s also been a significant amount of rare diseases, “which goes to show that these are often underdiagnosed by primary care simply because a GP sees them so rarely that they would not think of them,” says Nathrath.

A scan of online reviews attests to Ada’s ability to diagnose under-the-radar symptoms. With a 4.7 average rating in the Apple store app, users attest to its ability to pinpoint ailments ranging from tendonitis to iron deficiency. One reviewer wrote that it correctly diagnosed his grandmother’s acute heart failure and his grandfather’s osteoarthritis. Others love that the app “checks on them” to see if they’re feeling better.

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“Our mission is to be what we call the world’s personal health guide,” says Nathrath. “We want to reach 100 million people by 2020.”

To that end, Ada Health plans an aggressive expansion plan for 2018: a web version of the app, incorporating the top 10 most spoken languages, and evolving current features. Currently, the app works as a rather reactive health companion–it only responds to you telling it when there’s a problem. Nathrath wants to not only help consumers discover their conditions, but potentially prevent them to begin with.

“We’re going from sick-care towards healthcare–helping people stay healthy by managing conditions, monitoring them, and then ultimately prevention,” says Nathrath of Ada Health’s promising future. “We want to prevent the $10 problem from becoming a $100,000 problem.”

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