By Jeff Margolis
When I was just 19 years old, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, Crohn’s Disease, whose treatment included 100 days in a hospital and, over several years, seven major surgeries. There is no cure for this disease, but I learned to cope with it—controlling its symptoms in part through a discipline of diet, exercise, attitude and sleep. This experience taught me that it’s important not to see oneself as a victim of disease. We can take charge of our health and make our lives better.
Now, as chief executive of Welltok, a leading health optimization company, I’m a man on a mission. My goal is to transform the healthcare system from providing “sickcare” to helping consumers be and stay as healthy as they can individually be. Healthcare consumers should be at the center of an integrated system where people, their employers, care providers and insurance companies support a community of health—with the individual in charge. I believe that this approach is crucial if we hope to cure our sick healthcare system.
Last year, Welltok launched the ability to create and sustain just such an environment, called CaféWell. It’s a dynamic health optimization platform where individuals are connected with the tools and support they need to manage their own health, and are rewarded for making healthy choices. Currently, over 10 million consumers are eligible for CaféWell through their population health managers, including leading health insurance plans, ACOs and healthcare systems.
Things are moving fast at Welltok. Founded in 2009, we just announced our third round of venture capital funding. We raised $22.1 million from top venture capital firms, and, notably, IBM. We’re the first company to benefit from a $100 million investment fund IBM set aside to support companies that are building solutions based on its IBM Watson cognitive computing capabilities—the technology that beat two grand-champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!
We’ll use some of the money to accelerate development of CaféWell Concierge, powered by IBM Watson, which we announced last November as a joint development project with IBM. The concierge service offers individuals the ability to get advice from Watson on how to identify personalized activities, information and health management programs that can help them optimize their health—and get rewards for healthy behavior. Now that IBM has opened up Watson to an ecosystem of companies like ours, we can tap into the Jeopardy winner’s ability to understand the complexities of questions posed in natural language, and uncover helpful insights from data to address its users’ needs; all while learning to improve its own performance over time. Thanks to cloud, cognitive and mobile computing, people can get the information and insights they need wherever and whenever they need it.
Here’s a scenario that shows how the concierge will work. Evan, a 46-year-old man whose father died of heart disease at age 52, has joined CaféWell through his employer’s health plan. He’s acutely aware of the risks he faces and is determined to live a long and happy life.
Evan is a frequent traveler. It’s difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle when you spend so much time on the road. So he provides the concierge with information about his health and his goals, and, when he’s traveling, he frequently checks in via his smartphone for advice. Dinner time? The concierge knows where he is via GPS in the smartphone and suggests restaurants in the area that offer healthy dining choices. When Evan finishes a vegetarian meal, he clicks a button on his phone and gains rewards points for smart eating.
Later, Evan learns that he’s at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. After getting the news from his doctor, he consults the CaféWell Concierge. Through a dialogue with the Watson-powered system, it explains in detail the diet and exercise changes he should make and helps him design a tailor-made healthcare itinerary aimed at avoiding diabetes. The concierge notifies a health coach of the change in Evan’s situation. The coach calls him and offers support—including the opportunity to participate in an anonymous group discussion of diabetes on CaféWell.
With integrated healthcare management, everybody wins. The individual lives better and saves costs. Employers have a healthier workforce. Care providers benefit from the leverage of sharing information. And insurance companies control costs across their populations. Instead of treating people when they’re sick, we’re proactively optimizing their health. I’m convinced that this is the path to better healthcare value and a better healthcare system.
To learn more about Jeff’s ideas for fixing the healthcare system, read The Healthcare Cure: How Sharing Information Can Make the System Work Better. To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.