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Health care startups turn to ‘coaches’ to improve patient treatment

In 2011, Sean Duffy and Adrian James were sitting in San Francisco’s Dolores Park debating what to call some workers at the company they founded, Omada Health.

Omada, which launched that year, provides virtual treatment for chronic conditions. The company addresses the conditions through a team of employees — some traditional clinicians and others meant to give encouragement to patients as they manage the day-to-day of hypertension, prediabetes, and other conditions. This second group was crucial, they thought. The founders ended up asking patients what title to use.

Was this person a “concierge”? Patients thought that sounded like someone who helped with their bills. A “guide”? To what destination? The founders settled on “coach.” Patients liked the term: It suggested someone who could give support and make them “feel less alone,” Duffy said, as they dealt with their health challenges.

This decision was an early marker in an eventual tech company trend. Since then, dozens of similar startups focused on health coaching have emerged, often backed by big bucks. A review by KHN — of news releases, the industry database Crunchbase, and sites like LinkedIn — found nearly 50 companies with almost $7 billion in venture capital funding.

These startups offer people or software that provide motivation, direction, or moral support for managing what goes awry with the human body, including chronic conditions, musculoskeletal ailments, obesity — even attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and eczema. Business models vary. Some startups take payments directly from consumers; “anti-diet” app Wellory asks for $45 a month. Other startups get monthly per-member funding from companies to offer regular coaching for their employees. Some services tout 24/7 access and average connection times of 60 seconds. With some, coaches escalate serious issues to more highly credentialed clinicians.

The enthusiasm behind coaching is, on its face, a curious turn for an industry that likes to boast of its billion-dollar pills and spooky-sophisticated artificial intelligence.

“As these digital health startups got going, they realized technology is not enough to drive change,” explained Michael Yang, the managing partner at investors OMERS Ventures, who has invested in coaching startups. Patients might need to eat better, follow the physical therapy plan, talk through emotional turbulence, and more.

Coaches — whether they’re people or software — can support patients between formal visits to the doctor. That kind of encouragement can be important for sticking to a care plan — a critical thing in a world where good habits mean a lot for keeping healthy. Whether a patient needs a team to assist with the physical aspects of recovering from orthopedic surgery or help avoiding triggers for behavioral health conditions, these coaching companies are an app or a website away.

“The model has become extremely de rigueur,” Yang said. At many startups, coaches are “doing the lion’s share of the labor.”


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