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GPS For Your Health? One Start-up Thinks It's Possible

Can this machine replace man? Wellframe's new app brings artificial intelligence to the doctor's office.
The Wellframe team (from left to right): Jacob Sattelmair, Archit Bhise, Trishan Panch and Vinnie Ramesh.

Dozens of health-related apps and devices have hit the market, from a smart pedometer to a matching service for patients and doctors. But very few of them serve those currently coping with illness. Wellframe, a Boston-based company that makes mobile apps for hospital patients, is changing that.

Wellframe's first product sets out to change the way post heart-attack patients receive follow-up care. Ideally, once they are released from the hospital, patients undergo cardiac rehabilitation: a combination of medication, exercise, and education to manage risk factors. But few people do, says Jacob Sattelmair, Wellframe’s CEO. The required frequent clinic visits prove a barrier. "The cost of delivering the programs is so high," he says. "It's hard to scale."

With Wellframe's app, those patients receive the same instruction they would at a clinic--such as daily directives for medication and recommendations for exercise--so that they do not need to visit the doctor as frequently. The app tracks the patient's progress and uses artificial intelligence to adjust the program based on the patient’s activity. "It’s like GPS," Sattelmair says. "It recalibrates to give you the next set of directions." For instance, if a patient has trouble acheiving 30 minutes of exercise a day, the app might suggest aiming for 10 minutes instead. The app also includes a message system for patients and doctors to communicate about the progress of the program.

If Wellframe is successful, it could help stem one of the largest contributors to rising health care costs. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and U.S. heart patients are more likely to be readmitted after treatment than patients in other countries. The annual costs of treating cardiovascular disease top $270 billion. More than 2 million people are eligible for cardiac rehabilitation each year, Sattelmair says, and a study by the Mayo Clinic indicates that patients that go through the program can lower their mortality risk by 45 percent.

Sattelmair came up with the idea for Wellframe while earning a doctoral degree in cardiovascular epidemiology at Harvard. While still in school, he consulted for Dossia, an alliance of companies that has developed a platform for employees to access and understand their health care data. He quickly realized he wasn’t content to stay in research. After graduating, he had a brief stint as a product manager for FitnessKeeper. In 2011, he teamed up with Trishan Panch, a physician and lecturer at MIT, and Vinnie Ramesh and Archie Bhise, two MIT-trained computer scientists, to start Wellframe.

Sattelmair stresses that the app is intended to supplement, rather than replace, in-person care. The company's software also includes a platform for clinicians to track patients’ progress. "It's not intended to be available off the shelf, with absolutely no clinical oversight," he says. The company sells its platform to clinics and hospitals, rather than to patients directly--and that means provider buy-in, which is no small feat, is key to the company's success.

Wellframe has gotten off to a promising start. The company recently participated in Rock Health, an accelerator program for health-tech startups. It completed a pilot study of its app with Brigham and Women's Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and later this year, it will begin a research study in conjunction with a big academic medical center in New York. The company plans to roll out the app to five to 10 additional hospitals in the next six months.

Once its initial app gains adoption, Sattelmair sees Wellframe expanding into other areas of treatment. He and his co-founders are working on apps for oncology, psychiatrics, and pulmonary disease. "We want to make all patients' interactions with health care both appealing and efficient," he says.

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