Patient Partner: Choosing a Way to Better Health

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Akhila Satish, a public health advocate who has earned a master’s degree in biotechnology and built a company before hitting her quarter-life crisis, sees a way to a healthier society.

She has built Patient Partner, a mobile app based on a series of multiple-choice questions. It’s structured like a choose your own adventure game; you select a character, and then make choices for that character in a sequence of everyday situations. After a few rounds of scenarios, the game is up, and you’ll see how the path you chose impacted the character’s health. The game is simple and only takes a few minutes, but Patient Partner has gained attention in the medical community as the first mobile application clinically tested and proven to improve patient adherence to medications and care plans, resulting in improved health outcomes. 

Building Connections Between the Lab Bench and the Rest Of Us

Patient Partner - screenSatish, the visionary behind this promising project, has spent her young academic and professional career in science, from the research lab to her current role in health care technology.  She aspires to build better connections and communications between “the lab bench” (where medical research is conducted) and the real world, where that research can be applied to individuals with health challenges. Her team at MyCyberDoctor, the Mountainview-based startup she founded in 2009 while still in school, believes that a major barrier to improved health is a gap between medical research professionals – scientists, researchers, professors, doctors – and the rest of us, patients included. Satish knows that “becoming a scientist may not be for everyone,” but that shouldn’t prevent us from knowing what we can do to stay healthy.

She goes on to say, “There is a minimal standard of scientific literacy we really need to build across the population,” and that this simple app can help.

This young scientist-turned-entrepreneur has successfully articulated her case to investors, public health professionals, and medical researchers, explaining that patient non-adherence, or “not following your physician’s recommendations for your health,” lands us in hospitals, drains our time and money, and shortens our lives. (While “adherence” and “compliance” may not be the most beloved words among the diabetes community, she has a point, and compelling data to back it up.)

Indeed, who follows their physician’s recommendations 100% of the time?

The clinical trial for Patient Partner was conducted at PinnacleHealth System on 100 people with diabetes and a history of non-adherence and high blood glucose levels. For these diabetic patients, the app was shown to reduce their A1C by a full percentage point over a period of 12 weeks following approximately 12 minutes of playing time. The results of this trial will soon be published in a peer-reviewed research paper in a medical journal.

How Does Patient Partner Work?

Patient Partner - screen Visionary aspirations of change notwithstanding, Patient Partner is disarmingly simple. Once you’ve swiped through the smooth interface, you are presented with a real-life situation — the sort of dilemma that so often ensnares our medical choices.

The baby is crying and you’re already late for work. What did the doctor recommend? You’re to exercise, swallow your medication, inject your other medication, eat a healthy breakfast, and, oh, relax.

Your chamomile tea won’t soothe you today, because what the hell, you’re not going to sit still for long enough to drink it.

So what is a patient to do?

In this scenario, it’s not your life — it’s an app. You can look at poor Frank (one of the stars of Patient Partner), perhaps feel pity, empathy, a dash of Schadenfreude, and guess what he might do next.

Frank’s day doesn’t get any better, and you have a few more scenarios to navigate on his behalf. You then have a chance to answer all the questions again. This second time, your answers might be a bit different, because they’re based on what you would do.

My distance from Frank — the fact that I’m not a loving grandfather with diagnosed heart failure — is an advantage, Satish points out. “The farther you are from the situation, the less you know about it, and the more you can gain from it.”

In other words, it’s not personal. I can look at Frank’s life without getting distracted by my own circumstances. That’s where the learning occurs. Then, by the time I face my own challenges, Patient Partner has infiltrated my mind and I’ll make better choices.

I’m kidding, in part. There isn’t any mind control here. Once you’ve completed the scenario, you can receive your results by email, which helps you hone in on areas where you could benefit from more practice. These are your opportunities to gain skills, develop strategies, and, if the clinical trials are any indication, achieve better health outcomes.

Moving from Clinical Trials to the Real World

When I first tried Patient Partner, I thought, “Fine, but how is this going to impact my A1C?” Not only is there no mind control, the app doesn’t recommend specific lifestyle changes, doesn’t ask me to make dietary changes, let alone count carbs, and doesn’t ask for any of my personal information beyond my approximate age and gender.

And yet, based on the trial results, it clearly has an impact. Keep in mind that the trial participants were patients who had struggled mightily to follow the doctor’s orders and control their blood glucose levels. Their average A1C numbers pre-trial floated at above 10%, which promptly dropped a full percentage point. So Patient Partner functioned as a significant breakthrough for these patients.

In addition to the reduced A1C, trial results revealed increased adherence to medications, diet, and, most extremely, exercise regimens, all of which are directly related to A1C levels.

The app is free, and you can pay $3.99 for more detailed results and more scenarios. If you do buy the upgrade, you’ll receive a coupon for a 45% discount on a prescription medication. Not accidentally, you have to fill your prescription to earn the reward.

Akhila Satish - Patient Partner
Akhila Satish

Satish is excited about her progress so far, and she has plans to expand her community of users and add features her current users are clamoring for, such as more scenarios. (It’s slow going in part because each scenario and modification to the app needs to be painstakingly tested and reviewed.)  By partnering with organizations that are interested in improving patients’ health, including insurance and pharmaceutical companies, wellness publications and clubs, and, hopefully, hospitals and doctors themselves, she and her team of doctors and medical researchers at her Mountainview-based startup, MyCyberDoctor, can build a more sophisticated tool.

Satish also sees potential to build out features of Patient Partner specifically for the diabetes community. One of the biggest challenges ahead will be connecting with patients who could benefit most from Patient Partner, such as those individuals with very high A1C levels. As you can imagine, those at-risk patients have not yet downloaded the app en masse — instead, many of the app’s early users are wired to the latest news in health technology and wellness. (How do you think Patient Partner wound up on my phone?)

Satish is hopeful that the discounted prescriptions offered through Patient Partner will help to promote broader usage among at-risk patients. By building partnerships and spreading the word about Patient Partner’s potential, as well as by gaining approval from establishments like the American Diabetes Association, government regulatory agencies, and other influential forces in the medical establishment, the team at MyCyberDoctor may be able to reach a broader audience and bring about the improved health outcomes Satish believes possible.

Have you tried Patient Partner or another app to help you manage your diabetes? What has your experience been like? Write a comment or an email to let us know!

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