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How to Use Book Smarts to Build a Digital Health Startup

How to use book smarts to build a digital health startup 

One way for life science and digital health entrepreneurs to innovate: turn landmark literature into accessible, web-based programs.

That’s what Omada Health, a San Francisco startup, has done for diabetes prevention. In a session on the future of intervention at the FutureMed conference at Singularity University in the Silicon Valley last week, the company’s co-founder and CEO Sean Duffy explained the effort.

Diabetes is a major health threat, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that 25 million Americans are affected. With the costs of diabetes in the United States topping $174 billion, Duffy said the 10-year value of avoiding a single conversion from pre-diabetes to full-blown Type 2 diabetes is $55,000.

A 2002 clinical trial on diabetes prevention programs found that after three years, lifestyle intervention reduced the risk that people would progress from pre-diabetes to Type 2 diabetes by 58 percent. If the program were a therapeutic, Duffy said, it would have been commercialized.

The National Diabetes Prevention Program was launched by the Affordable Care Act to help combat the diabetes problem. But, Duffy said, programs rolled out by the CDC-run effort are based at brick and mortar locations. Participants have to take off time from work on, say, a Tuesday afternoon to visit their local YMCA for the intervention.

Omada Health built its company on the models of the diabetes prevention study and these brick and mortar efforts, Duffy said. The twist: a web translation. The Omada Health diabetes prevention program is a 16-week course with a health coach that focuses on changing food habits, increasing activity levels, preparing for challenges and sustaining healthy choices. Each participant – all of them have pre-diabetes – has a 7 percent weight loss goal. Participants are split into groups of about a dozen members based on location, age and body mass index.

As new lessons are unlocked each week, Omada Health ships participants packages filled with helpful tools, like scales. The health coach calls participants if they miss a lesson, but most support comes from other group members. Participants can track each other’s progress on weight loss – without seeing actual weights – and some group members have met up to take walks together. Participants have even shared private thoughts with fellow group mebers, Duffy said, including problems with poor self-image.

The initiative launched in December with new groups starting every Sunday, Duffy said. A recent 230-person pilot study found a 6.38 percent weight loss – that’s 2,250 pounds lost – and a 72 percent retention rate, he added. With Omada Health as an umbrella company, he hopes diabetes is just the starting place for future efforts.

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