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2014 Up-and-Comer: WellDoc

May 15, 2014
by David Raths
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To accompany our Healthcare Informatics 100 list of the largest companies in health information technology, we like to give readers a heads-up on some fast-growing companies that could very well make the HCI 100 in years to come. Throughout the week, leading up to the release of this year’s HCI 100 list on May 19, we will profile companies that have caught the attention of investors and analysts by addressing pressing needs in the industry with elegant, sophisticated solutions. So far they have been able to execute on the business side, managing the challenges of growing from startups to well-established companies.

Some of the best health IT ideas develop from patient or clinician frustration. So it was with Baltimore, Md.-based WellDoc. While working in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Division of Endocrinology, Suzanne Sysko Clough, M.D., was frustrated with the clinical outcomes she was seeing and thought it would help if there were some way to give patients more coaching tools and information to manage their own diabetes care.

In 2005, she and her brother Ryan Sysko, a technology and marketing executive, began exploring the potential of creating such tools. “We saw that technology could play a role in doing two things: first, helping support patients outside the clinical setting, and second, providing their healthcare providers with insight into their patient self-management behaviors outside the office, with some suggestions on how to optimize the patient’s care,” says Ryan Sysko, WellDoc’s CEO.

Ryan Sysko

With a pilot study funded by Johnson & Johnson in 2005 and 2006, they built a prototype and tested it on 15 patients for 90 days, with 15 others in a control group. “The patients using the product got dramatically better,” Sysko says. “We heard from both patients and doctors that it was changing their lives and their practices, so we decided to start this company.” (Co-founder Sysko Clough is the company’s chief medical officer.)

When they shared their pilot data, disease management and pharmaceutical companies were intrigued but wanted to see more evidence before they would pay for the product. So WellDoc partnered with CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield and the University of Maryland on a yearlong clinical trial with 185 patients and 35 physician practices around Baltimore. “It took us about four and a half years to complete that study from start to finish,” Sysko says, and again the results were positive, he adds. He called the results, published in Diabetes Care in 2011, “one of the landmark studies in showing how technology can support patients with diabetes and actually move the needle on clinical outcomes.”

Also, after more than three years of effort, WellDoc received FDA approval to allow for the prescription and reimbursement of what Sysko describes as a new category, “mobile prescription therapy.”

He says the company’s BlueStar platform helps patients adhere to physicians’ treatment recommendations. Patients register on the product after it is prescribed. A diabetes patient would enter their blood sugar reading of 67. “As a patient I may not know what to do,” he says. The system might tell you your blood sugar is low, and offer suggestions of what to do. “We have developed more than 10,000 messages, so whenever a customer enters blood sugar information they get feedback tailored to their medication regimen, blood sugar values, co-morbidities and knowledge of diabetes,” he explains. “We don’t just dump all this patient data on the doctor; we start to do some pre-processing, so we send the doctor a quarterly report. It offers an analysis of what the doctor may want to think about changing and the latest evidence-based guidelines.”

In January 2014, the company received $20 million in funding from institutional investors, including Merck Global Health Innovation Fund and Windham Venture Partners. In March 2014, it added former biotech industry veteran Kevin McRaith as its president. It has grown to 100 employees split evenly between Baltimore and a software development group in India. “We are starting to build out our commercial organization and hired our first sales representatives to call on doctors generating prescriptions and helping patients get the product reimbursed by their insurance companies,” Sysco says.

“A patient having a drug or a diagnostic device or seeing their provider once a quarter just isn’t enough,” Syko stresses. “To move the needle on outcomes, patients need something to help them manage their disease. Our goal is to be the leading provider of this type of therapy. We want to demonstrate the model and scale it on diabetes, but it absolutely could be used with other chronic diseases.”