Beyond the pill bottle: Why this health tech startup sees a big future in remote patient monitoring

June 2020 geekwire; The last time we caught up with Pillsy co-founders Jeff LeBrun and Chuks Onwuneme, three years ago, they were focused on their flagship product, a smart pill bottle that sounds an alarm if people forget to take their pills.

But that was just one example of the broader trend of remote patient monitoring — technology that helps medical professionals keep tabs on the status of patients at home, day in and day out, not just during periodic visits to the doctor’s office. Even before COVID-19 led to a boom in telehealth, LeBrun says, the need for better remote patient monitoring was becoming clear to Medicare officials, due to an aging population and a limited supply of health care workers.

“There’s been over a decade of research showing that remote patient monitoring has led to improved health outcomes and reduced costs,” LeBrun says. “With a system that’s already stretched thin, they knew that they needed to use more technology to try to handle this coming load of care that they would need to provide over the next 10 years. And so I think we’re really just at the tip of the iceberg. Certainly what we’re seeing now is accelerating that approach.”

The company, now operating under the name optimize.health, raised a $3.5 million bridge investment from Bonfire Capital earlier this year to help expand into this larger market. Other investors in the company include Jumpstart Capital and numerous angel investors with medical backgrounds.

Optimize.health develops software to monitor a variety of health devices like blood pressure cuffs, weight scales, blood glucose meters, and pulse oximeter devices. When health providers see that a patient needs support because a device is indicating a potential health issue, the software provides a variety of communication methods for contacting the patients, including text messages. The dashboard also provides a way to trigger a bill to the insurer for the clinician monitoring.

The broader strategy has expanded the potential impact of the company, which was founded in 2015 by Onwuneme, LeBrun and Otto Sipe.

“Health care is really one thing that could affect potentially everyone living in this country right now,” says Onwuneme, the company’s CTO. “Most people wouldn’t get that kind of opportunity,”

Two factors are contributing to investor interest, LeBrun says. Late last year, Medicare made a policy change allowing health care providers to bill for remote health monitoring.

The second factor is the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine is gaining new attention as a way to allow for the social distancing required to stem the spread of the virus, and also providing new ways for health providers to use technology to provide care when their ranks are stretched thin.

Optimize.health’s recent success in offering an aggregation of monitoring capabilities came through learning some long and time-consuming lessons from developing the Pillsy products. In that business, the founders were trying to solve a single health challenge: only 50% of medications are actually taken as prescribed.

They built a Bluetooth-connected pill bottle cap that would fit on standard prescription bottles. The cap would communicate with two pieces of related software — an app for patients to get reminders about taking their medication, and in-office software for medical providers to get alerts if patients weren’t adhering to their prescription regime.

But insurers weren’t yet reimbursing for the product or the monitoring, so LeBrun said investors were harder to woo given the long lead time needed to prove efficacy to both clinicians and insurers. They made an effort to sell the product to consumers but found the intermediary sellers too costly.

However, their lessons from the experience of building that product helped them capitalize on Medicare’s policy change on remote health monitoring. The founders added the optimize.health brand to the company and refocused their efforts on the software piece of remote health monitoring. Pillsy became one of many “smart” health care products, most developed by other companies, that they started supporting in their dashboard for clinicians.

Finding enough coding talent is a continuing challenge. Onwuneme says they are continually looking for experienced front- and back-end developers with healthcare experience like electronic health record integration skills to add to their current staff of 15 people, both on the product and engineering side.

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