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HIStalk Interviews Paul Meyer

November 11, 2009 Interviews 8 Comments

Paul Meyer is co-founder, chairman, and president of Voxiva.

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Tell me about Voxiva.

We’re a mobile technology company that had a crazy idea nine years ago that mobile phones had something to do with health. We’ve spent the last nine years building a platform and building mobile health solutions around the world.

It seems that the premise of the company is that expensive computers and ubiquitous broadband connectivity aren’t really necessary to connect the public to health services and to health experts. Is that true? And is it true in the U.S. as well as in the developing nations that you’ve worked with?

Absolutely. In the developing countries where we started working, the Internet just wasn’t a reality at all. Cell phones were the only game in town. Everyone was thinking about how you extend certain information systems to most of the world’s people. The cell phone is the only tool you’ve got at your disposal.

But over the last couple of years as we’ve started doing work here in the U.S., we’ve realized the same thing is true here. Statistics are pretty amazing. There’s some great data from Pew on relative reach of the Internet versus cell phones. It’s still a pretty striking gap. 

There are a lot of populations, particularly underserved and low-income populations, that still don’t have very good access to the Internet. Yet 90% of people here have cell phones. And, it’s not just that they have cell phones — their cell phones are with them in their pockets and on their bed stands.

If you think about how can technology be leveraged to help drive behavior change and improve patient adherence and compliance, you may as well use the technology tool that’s in their pocket.

Do you think the iPhone got people thinking about the possibility of having a smart phone deliver a fairly rich application?

I think iPhones have done an amazing job of opening people’s eyes up to the possibility. People ask me a lot why the U.S. is thought of as so far behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile health. There are a couple reasons. 

In the rest of the world, in emerging market countries, there was no alternative. There was no Internet to reach those people. Necessity being the mother of invention, people went right to mobile.

Secondly, the U.S. is the only country in the world where you actually pay to receive text messaging on cell phones. That’s also been a barrier to the adoption. Not just to health applications, but mobile applications in general. But I think that’s starting to change. Certainly the iPhone has done a lot to open people’s eyes to the possibility that cell phones could be used in powerful ways to make you healthy.

Now, with that said, when I ask someone what their mobile health strategy is and they say, “We’ll build an iPhone app,” My response is always, “Well, what are you doing for the other 95% of the people?” I think you would do well with an iPhone, but ultimately, if you want to try to reach a big chunk of the population, you need to use other tools — whether it’s SMS or voice response or other ways of using a mobile phone — and not assuming that everyone’s going to have the iPhone, because they don’t.

I think people who travel outside the U.S. are sometimes surprised by that we’re fairly primitive in our cell phone technology. Do you think that’s a barrier, or is it going to improve?

I think it’s getting better. I talked about a couple of the reasons, but in some ways the real reason that the U.S. is behind on mobile is because we have the Web. If you think about all of the innovation that went into the dot-com era, all these Web-based business models, many of our best and brightest minds spent ten or fifteen years innovating on tools to use the Web.

In the rest of the world, where the Web was not a reality, that kind of innovation and creativity went into optimizing mobile devices. That’s why, in some ways, the rest of the world is so far ahead.

After nine years of doing this in places from Peru to India to Rwanda to about 14 countries where we operate, when I’m now spending a lot of time here in the U.S. working with our clients here, my not-so-subtle message is, we’re here to help you learn from what they’ve done in Mexico, what they’ve done in India or Rwanda  in terms of leveraging mobile technology to improve healthcare.

That makes me think of India’s technical advances in the 1990s when they couldn’t afford mainframe computers and therefore created a generation of PC and Web developers that drove the industry. Could the same thing happen with cell phone development?

I think it has. I think you’re seeing that. I think that’s exactly what’s happened.

I think obviously the U.S. is waking up to this. Secretary Sebelius last week gave a great speech. There was a mobile health summit hosted by the National Institutes of Health in Washington. Secretary Sebelius gave an incredible speech talking about the importance of mobile phones in healthcare. It was really refreshing to hear.

I would say there’s so much discussion and focus right now on electronic health records, my fear is, as the government is gearing up to spend all this money on all these high-tech incentives for EHR adoption, is that we’re spending way too much time talking about the plumbing and not enough time talking about how all this technology is actually going to make people healthier.

One of the things I was really gratified to hear in her speech last week was that the importance she attaches to mobile phones as a tool for really informing and engaging your power in patients, seeing the mobile phone as the obvious extender of electronic health records. I don’t want to diminish the power of Web-based EHRs and other tools that are out there, but I think they’re getting a fair bit of attention.

I think that people aren’t paying enough attention to the fact that we already have, in the U.S., 300 million cell phones. In my view, those are 300 million untapped health behavior change devices that are ready to be put to work.

Did you get a sense that the government really understands the difference between just making providers theoretically more efficient as opposed to actually changing health?

I think certainly some people do. I think we’re working with the government on a really exciting initiative that isn’t announced yet. Secretary Sebelius alluded to it in her speech last week. It’s a major mobile health service focused on pregnancy and providing information by text messaging to pregnant women and new mothers to help make a dent in the pretty horrifying maternal and infant mortality statistics in the U.S. We’re working with the mobile phone industry through the CTIA, Johnson & Johnson, and a bunch of federal partners. 

I think the HHS and the federal government partners that we’re working with really see this initiative as a very high-profile demonstration of the power of mobile phones to really improve health and impact one of the biggest health crises facing the country.

There are certainly some real believers in the government in mobile health. My advice to them has been, as the government is spending all these billions of dollars on health IT, they want to be sure that they actually do some things that are actually visible and tangible and beneficial to patients. 

The government is run by politicians who ultimately want to appeal to voters. You don’t want to be the politician that explains how you spent 20 or 40 or whatever billion dollars on improving the technology to improve health care, and yet have none of it visible or beneficial to patients in a way that they can perceive.

I think it’s really important to identify ways — and again, obviously you know my bias — but I really believe that mobile health is probably the best way of extending some of the value of health IT to patients to help support them, engage them, inform them, and help them live healthier lives.

We send much of our public health expertise out of the country since we already have clean water and vaccines, but our healthcare system is still centered around the idea of episodic treatment interventions. Are population-based public health interventions a tough sell here?

We have huge problems here. The United States has the second-worst infant mortality rate in all of the developed world. It’s staggering. It’s unconscionable that we’re about the richest country in the world and have infant mortality rates at such staggering proportions.

We’ve looked a lot at the data and it’s pretty concentrated. The high infant mortality rates are highly correlated to lower-income women, primarily African-American. The Hispanics actually have relatively better birth outcomes. So African-American, lower-income, low educational level, highly concentrated in the South. That’s the part of the country that has the worst birth outcomes.

We then took some of the Pew Research data and looked at the Internet vs. cell phone penetration among the sub-populations with the highest infant mortality. There was just a 20-30% gap between broadband Internet and cell phone penetration in the population that we’re trying to reach.

African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately much higher users of SMS and other mobile data services because they have a relatively lower level of internet access. If one is looking at how to extend and improve health services and extend healthcare to under-served and low-income populations, the mobile phone is an even more indispensable tool.

We’re doing a lot of work with people focused on serving the Medicaid population, but as healthcare reform is happening and all of a sudden the country is figuring out — how are we going to actually start extending healthcare to 30 or 40 million people that don’t have it right now?

These tools are really important for a couple of reasons. The lower-income people that don’t have access to healthcare right now are disproportionately high users of cell phones. But secondly, the idea of actually automating some of this interaction and giving people the information and the tools to take care of themselves is a way of actually reducing the burden on the healthcare delivery system.

We already have an over-extended healthcare system. With 30 or 40 million more people coming into it finally at long last, it’s going to be even more of a burden. We’re looking at some of these alternative ways of engaging patients. I think it’s going to be more important.

Do you think it’s counter-intuitive for the average person to understand that poor and less educated people are heavier users of cell phone technology?

I think that people are often surprised when I show them that data. I think people assume that technology usage and income are just correlated on a straight line basis. That just doesn’t actually get borne out when it comes to cell phone usage.

If you were trying to make the case that this technology works for health improvement, what examples would you give?

There have been a lot of really good published data. I was looking at a study just today from Norway on smoking cessation. In a randomized clinical trial looking at people that were involved in a smoking cessation program, half of the study group was also enrolled in an SMS texting support service to enhance the program. It doubled the rate of quitting.

We’ve done a lot of work in improving adherence and compliance in HIV/AIDS care treatment. There have been some really, some good studies showing improved efficacy of weight loss programs when enhanced by a mobile service. It’s still early, but I think there are some good initial studies showing the improved health outcomes in these kinds of interventions.

I think this approach works for everybody, but I think particularly if you start looking at thinking about serving low-income and under-served populations and how to leverage technology and engage with them about their health, the Internet can’t be the end of the story.

There’s another data point from Pew of people with chronic conditions. Only 50% of them have Internet access. If you can get 100% adoption of some Web-based tool, then you’re still only halfway there.

Anyone who is looking at how to engage and support people in their health, particularly but not exclusively in some more under-served populations — I just think people would have to explain why they wouldn’t take this kind of an approach.

Your background in political and humanitarian causes, along with the source of funding for the company’s projects, almost make it sound more like a non-profit public health think tank than a for-profit vendor. How is Voxiva like and unlike the traditional software vendor?

I grant you that I personally and Voxiva have had a somewhat circuitous past to the U.S. healthcare system. We basically just saw big problems to solve. We saw a big opportunity to leverage to solve those problems. We may think a little bit differently than traditional public company, but ultimately, we’re driven by trying to solve problems. Like helping developing world health systems track disease outbreak better or that and things we’re focusing on now, of trying to help give people the information and support to live healthier lives.

We focus on trying to leverage and define innovative solutions for solving important problems. We believe if we can do that, we’ll get paid for it and make money at it. Henry Ford had a pretty good line on this — a company whose only purpose is making money or has no reason for being.

Finding problems to solve and eventually figuring out how you’re going to get paid by people for having and creating value has, I guess, certainly been our philosophy in terms of building a business.

Who’s your customer?

We market to public health and government health. We’ve also got those public health agencies and government healthcare providers. We market it to insurance companies. We’re working with one of the insurance companies. We market to pharmaceutical companies that are paying us to create adherence programs, and also the big employers. We’re beginning a little bit of work with some provider networks.

You were quoted as saying that Voxiva’s ideal employee is part McKinsey consultant, part Microsoft engineer, part Peace Corps volunteer. What are the employees and work environment like?

I said that probably six or seven years ago when it was relevant toward developing world business. We do blend a lot of skill sets. We’ve obviously got a lot of engineers. We’ve got a lot of health people.

We were started by — I guess I don’t know what you’d call me, an entrepreneur — a technologist, and a medical anthropologist. I think the three founders roughly had the very skill sets that we have tried to combine. What makes what we do interesting and also makes it hard is that we really do try to live at this intersection between technology and health and behavior change and sociology.

We’re not your people that write code. We work with our partners and our customers to come up with solutions that are really going to make people healthier. It’s not just a matter of taking, for example, content of a smoking cessation program or pregnancy educational materials and squeezing them into the 160 characters you can fit into a text message. It’s really about developing interactive engagement services that can improve health and change behavior.

I don’t think we have anyone that actually perfectly embodies all of the skill sets we need, but we definitely have tried to attract people that check more than one box and blend some of the various skills from the overlapping the Venn diagram of what Voxiva is.

Any final thoughts?

There are 300 million cell phones in this country that are sitting idle. We use them to vote for American Idol. That’s really what we’re using them for here, other than sending text messages and making phone calls. I think the healthcare system in this country can put them to work and do a lot more. I think people ought to be thinking about how. We’d love to help.

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Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Great Idea would just like more examples and maybe a URL to a demo site rather than US Healthcare bashing…
    Let me know what you did in Mexico that was so hot… Other than maybe a text letting a mexican citizen know the ER wait times at border ER’s or where to get free Delivery for their baby….

    I’m in Dr’s offices every day Monday through Friday all over this US of A and I see tons of patients getting great care. We do still believe in personal responsibility… You are somewhat responsible for your own healthare… If you want me to send you a text rather than a secure email from a portal on your lab results please make sure HIPPA is ok with that…. I’m sure our Helthcare privacy regulations are much stricter than any other Country which makes using a cell phone difficult if not impossible for a Dr who prefers to deal face to face with a patient in order to get a copay and a level 99214 exam.

    I think you were heavy on philosophy and short on details and working examples as well as a decent website URL with a captivate demo.

  2. Good article. May not make sense immediately to the common man but ultimately drives the point home that technology as simple as mobile phones CAN improve health.

  3. SMS is a pretty simple tool, but it just goes to show it’s not the tool but how you use it. That’s one of the better ideas they have over at the NHS, with NHS Mail allowing free and secure sending of text messages and there have been great successes reducing DNA’s by simply texting a reminder.

    Why not take that further and send medication reminders or take it a step further and have a system where you have a remind and response system. Bext thing is it’s cheap and easy to implement.

  4. “We have huge problems here. The United States has the second-worst infant mortality rate in all of the developed world. It’s staggering.”

    Ignorance in staggering, too.

    From the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, http://www.aapsonline.org/newsoftheday/00307

    Myth 4: Infant mortality is lower in other countries because they have “universal” tax-funded medical care, and the U.S. does not.
    July 3rd, 2009

    A number of countries report lower infant mortality than the U.S., but it has nothing to do with the source of payment for medical care.

    In Japan, which has the best statistics (3.3 die per 1,000 live births), the national system does not cover normal childbirth—or prenatal, postnatal, and postpartum care (Your Health Matters by Gregory Dattilo and David Racer, Alethos Press, 2006).

    In the U.S., mortality is only 3.0 per 1,000 for full-term babies weighing at least 5.5 lbs (ibid.). Premature, low-birth-weight babies, who have a much higher risk of early death, have a better chance of survival in the U.S. than anywhere else, because of the excellent medical care they receive here.

    The incidence of prematurity and low birth weight is relatively high in the U.S.; one reason is ethnic composition. Black American mothers give birth before 37 weeks twice as often as whites, and 3.8 times as often before 28 weeks (Future of Children, Spring 1995).

    Predictors of premature birth include socioeconomic factors such as age under 20, single marital status, being on welfare, and not having graduated high school (Lieberman E, et al. N Engl J Med 1987;317:743-748) ; chronic health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, or clotting disorders; certain infections during pregnancy; use of cigarettes, alcohol, or illicit drugs (CDC); and prior abortions (Rooney B, Calhoun BC, J Am Phys Surg 2003;8:46-49). Increasing Medicaid coverage for pregnant women had no effect on birth outcomes (Ray WA, et al. JAMA 1998;279:314-316).

    Many nations do not count very small babies as live births. Hence, they don’t count as deaths either. In France and Belgium, for example, babies born before 26 weeks are automatically considered stillborn, states Bernardine Healy.

    In the U.S., all our babies count, even if they make our statistics look worse. The tiny ones we now save could be the first casualties of “reform.”

    “[A question] that assumes even greater significance as we contemplate the finances of health care reform [is] how much capital are we willing to invest to save the lives of the most extremely preterm infants?” (Future of Children, op. cit.)

    Additional information:

    * “Our ‘Broken Health Care System’? No, Something Else,” by Tamzin A. Rosenwasser, M.D., J Am Phys Surg, winter 2007.
    * The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule, by Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI press, 1995.

  5. And from Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_mortality

    The infant mortality rate correlates very strongly with and is among the best predictors of state failure.[4] IMR is also a useful indicator of a country’s level of health or development, and is a component of the physical quality of life index. But the method of calculating IMR often varies widely between countries based on the way they define a live birth and how many premature infants are born in the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a live birth as any born human being who demonstrates independent signs of life, including breathing, voluntary muscle movement, or heartbeat. Many countries, however, including certain European states and Japan, only count as live births cases where an infant breathes at birth, which makes their reported IMR numbers somewhat lower and raises their rates of perinatal mortality.[5]

    The exclusion of any high-risk infants from the denominator or numerator in reported IMRs can be problematic for comparisons. Many countries, including the United States, Sweden or Germany, count an infant exhibiting any sign of life as alive, no matter the month of gestation or the size, but according to United States Centers for Disease Control researchers,[6] some other countries differ in these practices. All of the countries named adopted the WHO definitions in the late 1980s or early 1990s,[7] which are used throughout the European Union.[8] However, in 2009, the US CDC issued a report which stated that the American rates of infant mortality were affected by the United States’ high rates of premature babies compared to European countries and which outlines the differences in reporting requirements between the United States and Europe, noting that France, the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Poland do not report all live births of babies under 500 g and/or 22 weeks of gestation.[6][9][10] However, the report also concludes that the differences in reporting are unlikely to be the primary explanation for the United States’ relatively low international ranking.[10]

    See the references 4-10 there.

  6. Wkikpedia cont:
    Another well-documented example also illustrates this problem. Historically, until the 1990s Russia and the Soviet Union did not count as a live birth or as an infant death extremely premature infants (less than 1,000 g, less than 28 weeks gestational age, or less than 35 cm in length) that were born alive (breathed, had a heartbeat, or exhibited voluntary muscle movement) but failed to survive for at least seven days.[11] Although such extremely premature infants typically accounted for only about 0.005 of all live-born children, their exclusion from both the numerator and the denominator in the reported IMR led to an estimated 22%-25% lower reported IMR.[12] In some cases, too, perhaps because hospitals or regional health departments were held accountable for lowering the IMR in their catchment area, infant deaths that occurred in the 12th month were “transferred” statistically to the 13th month (i.e., the second year of life), and thus no longer classified as an infant death.[13]

    UNICEF uses a statistical methodology to account for reporting differences among countries. “UNICEF compiles infant mortality country estimates derived from all sources and methods of estimation obtained either from standard reports, direct estimation from micro data sets, or from UNICEF’s yearly exercise. In order to sort out differences between estimates produced from different sources, with different methods, UNICEF developed, in coordination with WHO, the WB and UNSD, an estimation methodology that minimizes the errors embodied in each estimate and harmonize trends along time. Since the estimates are not necessarily the exact values used as input for the model, they are often not recognized as the official IMR estimates used at the country level. However, as mentioned before, these estimates minimize errors and maximize the consistency of trends along time.”[14]

    Another challenge to comparability is the practice of counting frail or premature infants who die before the normal due date as miscarriages (spontaneous abortions) or those who die during or immediately after childbirth as stillborn. Therefore, the quality of a country’s documentation of perinatal mortality can matter greatly to the accuracy of its infant mortality statistics. This point is reinforced by the demographer Ansley Coale, who finds dubiously high ratios of reported stillbirths to infant deaths in Hong Kong and Japan in the first 24 hours after birth, a pattern that is consistent with the high recorded sex ratios at birth in those countries and suggests not only that many female infants who die in the first 24 hours are misreported as stillbirths rather than infant deaths but also that those countries do not follow WHO recommendations for the reporting of live births and infant deaths.[15]

    Another seemingly paradoxical finding is that when countries with poor medical services introduce new medical centers and services, instead of declining the reported IMRs often increase for a time. The main cause of this is that improvement in access to medical care is often accompanied by improvement in the registration of births and deaths. Deaths that might have occurred in a remote or rural area and not been reported to the government might now be reported by the new medical personnel or facilities. Thus, even if the new health services reduce the actual IMR, the reported IMR may increase.

  7. “We have huge problems here. The United States has the second-worst infant mortality rate in all of the developed world. It’s staggering.”

    The situation is far more complex than this, and I fervently wish people, especially non clinicians, would do some fact checking before issuing statements like this.

    See AAPS “Myth 4: Infant mortality is lower in other countries because they have “universal” tax-funded medical care, and the U.S. does not” at http://www.aapsonline.org/newsoftheday/00307

    and see the Wikipedia entry section “Comparing infant mortality rates” on the statistical problems in these mortality figures:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_mortality

    Statements about the US mortality rates are more ideology-driven than science driven.







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