Patients are collaborating for better health — and, just maybe, radically reduced health-care costs.
Not long ago, Sean Ahrens managed flare-ups of his Crohn’s disease—abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea—by calling his doctor and waiting a month for an appointment, only to face an inconclusive array of possible prescriptions. Today, he can call on 4,210 fellow patients in 66 countries who collaborate online to learn which treatments—drugs, diets, acupuncture, meditation, even do-it-yourself infusions of intestinal parasites —bring the most relief.
The online community Ahrens created and launched two years ago, Crohnology.com, is one of the most closely watched experiments in digital health. It lets patients with Crohn’s, colitis, and other inflammatory bowel conditions track symptoms, trade information on different diets and remedies, and generally care for themselves.
The site is at the vanguard of the growing “e-patient” movement that is letting patients take control over their health decisions—and behavior—in ways that could fundamentally change the economics of health care. Investors are particularly interested in the role “peer-to-peer” social networks could play in the $3 trillion U.S. health-care market.
“Patients sharing data about how they feel, the type of treatments they’re using, and how well they’re working is a new behavior,” says Malai Ghandi, chief strategy officer of Rock Health, a San Francisco incubator for health-care startups that invested in Crohnology.com. “If you can get consumers to engage in their health for 15 to 30 minutes a day, there’s the largest opportunity in digital health care.”
“As a patient, it’s extremely important to me to get the right information to treat my condition that’s unbiased by economics,” says Ahrens. “Unfortunately that’s not the world we live in.” He says he built the site “to give the power to patients to study things that weren’t currently studied.”