When you feel a tickle in your throat or a twinge in a muscle, what is the first thing you do?
Previously, before the advent of cell phones and tablets you probably would have just waited it out to see if your symptoms got progressively worse. Eventually, you may have called your local physician to book an appointment if you were still feeling off or if the pain went away you would have simply forgot about the episode and moved on.
Today, at the first sign of any illness or discomfort many are not waiting it out, but instead heading straight to their internet browsers and applications on phones to find an immediate diagnosis. When the rise of symptom checkers first began, by typing in something like "sore thigh muscle" people could easily scroll through countless possible underlying causes ranging from a pulled hamstring all the way to Fibromyalgia. The drastic nature of these "diagnoses" were not making life easier for patients or physicians though as small, everyday aches and pains were blown out of proportion.
Fast forward to the current day and digital health has taken notice of the desire for an immediate diagnosis along with the increased desire for accuracy. Platforms have moved beyond broadly listing out catastrophic diseases and unlikely health scenarios for all symptoms inputs and instead are developing sophisticated artificial intelligence based platforms designed to converse directly with users. Now users are able to have a personal, multi-level analysis of their symptoms with actionable next steps and more accurate diagnoses.
One of the companies that is leveraging the potential of AI in this manner is Buoy Health. Buoy Health was founded in 2014 by Dr. Andrew Le, Adam Lathram, Nate Ren, and Eddie Reyes. Le recently spent time telling us about his inspiration for heading down this digital health pathway and the future the he sees for online symptom platforms.
Junto Health (JH): What originally inspired you to found Buoy Health? Who makes up the team?
Andrew Le (AL): I was doing my last rotation of my 3rd year at Harvard Medical School in the emergency room. There, I saw patient after patient who came in after Googling their symptoms online. Unfortunately, the majority of patients who relied on the internet to self-diagnose their symptoms, guessed wrong an overwhelming % of the time. This then created two problems - waste (82% of ER visits could've been taken care of somewhere less acute) or the patient actively endangering their lives by waiting to get care. When my dad got sick and made the wrong choice of where to get care, I was moved to take a leave from school and start Buoy with 3 co-founders from various backgrounds, Adam Lathram (consulting), Nate Ren (marketing), and Eddie Reyes (technical). Today, we're a close-knit team of 9 people with complementary skill-sets ranging across tech, medicine, design, and sales/marketing.
JH: Did you always plan on becoming involved in the digital health field?
AL: Not at all - my original life goal was to become a neurosurgeon. However, seeing how people were struggling to make safe decisions about their health was really eye-opening and made me re-evaluate the impact I'd have treating patients one-by-one. Especially when, in my opinion, our failure to empower patients is a core reason why health care spending continues to rise. Our team really believes that if people are given personalized, timely, and accurate information, they can make the right decisions on when and where to go when they're feeling sick. Which is why, we've all left our respective careers to build Buoy.
JH: Can you explain the technology that drives Buoy Health?
AL: Buoy is designed to feel like you are chatting with a friendly doctor. It is incredibly easy to use. You start by entering your symptoms. Buoy’s algorithm then analyzes your answers in real-time and decides the most important question to ask next. In just 2-3 minutes, Buoy gains a detailed understanding of your case and offers up options for what to do next that are personalized to you – go to ER, rest, watch carefully etc. If immediate care is needed, Buoy will present you with different ways to connect to care providers nearby.
JH: Other symptom checking applications have been criticized as catering to those who are hyper aware of their health and for failing to deliver accurate diagnosis. How were these concerns, and past application successes and failures, taken into consideration when developing Buoy Health?
AL: We are very aware of the alarmist nature of web-based symptom checkers. At Buoy, we combat this head-on by never mentioning diagnoses like cancer or rarer conditions that are inappropriate for a computer to suggest. Rather, Buoy models conditions and alerts to the patient by pointing them in the right direction as to what the next appropriate step would be, such as taking a blood test, especially when someone's situation is concerning for a rarer or more dangerous diagnosis.
As for accuracy, unlike typical web-based symptom checkers that use simplistic decision trees to diagnose what’s wrong (fever turn right, next thing you know everyone has cancer), Buoy’s advanced machine learning algorithm really listens. It is constantly recalculating your inputs in real-time to help serve up questions that will more quickly and more accurately identify what’s wrong – so you can get on the right path to getting better. Buoy is also different from other chatbots in the space as we leverage proprietary data that is so granular, we are able to personalize every interaction and make our exchanges more approachable, more accurate and more engaging for the average person.
JH: How many current users do you have on your application? Are there any trends seen in the demographics of the users?
AL: We've had 87,000 visitors since we launched in early March. As for trends, 60% of our users are female, 32% are between the ages of 25-34, but interestingly, 34% are above the age of 45.
JH: With current healthcare restructuring looming on the horizon, do you see platforms such as Buoy Health having the potential to help alleviate some structural cost issues? What do you think the future role of digital health will be in the U.S. healthcare system?
AL: Absolutely. As more of the economic burden of health care falls on the patient, such as high-deductible insurance plans, there needs to be a proliferation of scalable tools available to help patients make more informed decisions. In the past, much of the focus in health care has been around policies and institutional structures. I believe that the new wave of digital tools will shift the focus toward empowering patients to take ownership over their own health care journeys.