Author: Jaya Mathur

A “Breakthrough” worth watching

The potential of one company to create an online platform for delivering mental health care is baked right into its title: Breakthrough.

But does the product live up to its name? According to Social+Capital Partnership, a venture capital firm that recently awarded Breakthrough $5 million in Series A financing, it just might.

Experiments in tele-health or tele-medicine – using telecommunications to deliver health care – are not new. Tele-health evolved as a means to provide care to people for whom getting medical care in a brick-and-mortar clinic is impractical or impossible, because of where they live or their medical conditions. In the last decade, we have seen tele-health innovation primarily at the network level – essentially, cadres of clinics and other health care providers that agree to provide clinical consultations to one another electronically. More recently, tele-health technologies that enable individuals to receive tele-care outside the doctor’s office have begun to crop up.

That’s where Breakthrough comes in. Using Breakthrough, people can access therapy and other psychiatric services from home – according to its brief promotional video, “All you need to use Breakthrough is a broadband internet connection and a webcam.” Breakthrough also accepts certain types of insurance and now covers 2 million members of health plans, CEO Mark Goldensen told TechCrunch.

Breakthrough makes accessing mental health care sound so easy. And for people suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, easy is often hard to find.

Game Therapy

KinectFor children, coping with the pain of chronic illness can be particularly harrowing. They can’t well understand and articulate what they’re feeling. They can’t quite recognize how temporal pain is and that, one day in the future, it will be gone. They just want to be normal.

So, what if treating pain could be fun?

The Pain Medicine Care Complex in Washington ventures it can be. Specialists and game developers there are piloting four galaxy-themed video games that serve as a form of physical therapy. The games rely on Kinect, a motion sensor device controlled largely by users’ gestures, and aim to increase patients’ range of motion and distract children from their pain, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

There’s an upside for physicians too: the games provide them with more data on their patients. Kinect can track a patient’s movements and funnel that data directly into a database, the NYT article reports. Specialized software then automatically generates infographics, allowing physicians to grasp the patient’s angles, distance and speed with ease.

Dr. Julia Finkel, chief of pain medicine at the complex, reported to NYT that current methods to assess and treat pain rely on trial and error. Using empirical data generated by the video games could reduce doctors’ reliance on observation and patients’ self-report.

Increasingly, we see sensors cropping up to tell us how are bodies perform. A little over a year ago, Nike released the FuelBand, a wristband that tracks physical activity indicators and compiles it into a brand-specific measure called NikeFuel. Just yesterday, I learned of a wi-fi connected scale that senses weight, body fat, heart rate and even room temperature.

If we already use sensory data to monitor our health, isn’t it a logical step for trained medical professionals to use that data to monitor our health?

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Showcasing Moms’ Mettle

momsMoms are tough. They endure painful labors and lengthy adoption processes. They withstand years of neediness followed by years of angst. They teach lessons, clean up messes, and in countless other ways provide for their families.

And they don’t stand for nonsense gun policies.

Moms Demand Action, which was created in the wake of December’s Newtown shooting, represents over 5,000 moms advocating for gun sense in America. But the organization’s campaign materials are anything but sweet.

A few days ago, the organization released a new video, “How Many More Rounds?” The video uses bullets to represent the many mass American mass shootings that have occurred in the past several years and includes audio clips from parents who have lost their children in such tragedies. It captivates and chills.

Another print ad features a young girl holding the book “Little Red Riding Hood” and another girl sitting next to her holding a large gun. The tagline says, “One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one.” The ad refers to several schools’ ban of “Little Red Riding Hood” (apparently because the grandmother in the story drinks wine).

These materials evoke the pain caused by gun violence and the backwardness of current policies. But how many people will actually see them? And, what’s more, will those who do actually view these materials actually take some action as a result?

Being provocative is important. But the utility of provocation primarily lies in generating attention and spurring action in service of a mission. And, in my opinion, Moms Demand Action has a mission worthy of both.

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Rewarding Health

Mango Health

I grew up in the Super Mario Bros. era. Even though I didn’t own a Nintendo system, it doesn’t take much for me to conjure up the glee of leaping into the bright blue sky and snagging a gold coin.

Let’s face it: we all like to be rewarded. Whether you’re accruing points or just plain ol’ praise, it feels good to be recognized for a job well done. So it makes sense that we’re seeing rewards systems pop up in unlikely places – say, mobile health apps.

Mango Health is the latest mobile startup to implement the so-called gamification of health. The company’s app, which is now available in iOS, aims to facilitate medication adherence by providing them with gift cards and discounts for sticking to a regimen. Mango Health has announced partnerships with Target, Whole Foods and Gap.

“In the very end, good game design is about changing human behavior,” CEO Jason Oberfest told TechCrunch. “To be able to apply that in an area that can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives gets me so excited to come to work every day.”

We incentivize children to do all kinds of things – eat their vegetables, mow the lawn, get A’s in school. Incentivizing adults isn’t a new concept either. Our economy is predicated upon an incentives model; you work, we’ll pay you. Perhaps it’s time we expanded the task-reward system to help people help themselves.

What do you think? Do you see promise in this model? Do you foresee challenges and pitfalls?

Image source: Mango Health

Smart Phone Medicine


“I have a smart phone. Am I doctor?”

That quote comes from funny man Stephen Colbert. Realistically, it could have been uttered by anyone dubious of consumer technology’s role in health care.

Last week, Colbert interviewed Eric Topol, author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care” on his show, The Colbert Report. Topol, a cardiologist, serves as Chief Academic Officer at Scripps Health and co-founded the West Wireless Health Institute.

Topol explained that the term “creative destruction” in his book title refers to the transformation of medicine using radical innovation. In a nutshell, technology is turning medicine on its head.

“That smart phone is going to be the conduit of medical information about your health, about your essence,” Topol told Colbert. “You can do monitoring anywhere, through your phone, through these kind of sensors.”

In response, Colbert asked, “If I’m doing the monitoring, why do I need the doctor?” Instead of answering, Topol pulled out the tip of an otoscope, attached it to his smart phone, and stuck it in Colbert’s ear. (A few days prior, Colbert had blown out his eardrum while scuba diving.)

The on-air prognosis? “It’s healing,” said Topol.

But Colbert was onto something with his question. Where do doctors fit in a consumer-technology-ridden medical field? Is technology leading us to believe we can be our own doctors? Would that be a bad thing?

On one hand, personal devices and sensors provide an opportunity to monitor vitals, such as blood pressure, more frequently and without an expensive doctor visit. Topol explained that, using sensory technology, your phone may even be able to warn you if you’re about to have a heart attack.

On the other hand, many of us have already experienced the ineffectiveness of self-diagnosis (see anytime you have a sore throat, look up your symptoms on WebMD, and subsequently determine you have throat cancer). It also seems possible that average people would become overconfident with their new tools and not seek medical care when necessary.

Still, even skeptics may have difficulty getting over the novelty and impressiveness of these new health technologies. Case in point: one minute, Topol said, “Let’s convert this smart phone to a medical device.” And then, just like that, he did.

Image source: The Colbert Report’s Facebook page

Bora Zivkovic: The Blogfather

Bora Zivkovic

Bora Zivokovic, Blog Editor at ScientificAmerican, doesn’t see fellow science publications like Wired or Discover as his competition. “Our competition is Lindsay Lohan,” he says. “The enemy, if there is an enemy, is external: popular culture and pseudoscience.”

That leaves Zivkovic and other science bloggers free to support one another and focus on what unites them: getting people hooked on science.

The endeavor seems to be flourishing. According to Zivkovic, people are interested in science more than ever before, due in part to the massive amount of quality scientific content generated and made available in the digital age.

“It’s difficult for even the best teachers to make [science] exciting, because they have to teach to the test,” Zivkovic says. “These other media fill in the gap and make science interesting.”

The beauty of popular science these days is its accessibility. As an example, Zivkovic points out MythBusters – a Discovery Channel show that tests out popular scientific beliefs (such as the five-second rule when food drops on the ground) to see if they hold up (the five-second rule largely doesn’t). “People don’t think, ‘I’m learning science,’ they think, ‘This is cool!’” It’s like when moms hide spinach in brownies; the kids don’t think about how healthy the brownies are, just how good they taste.

Social media also helps spread science news, according to Zivkovic. Even if a young woman isn’t looking for information on, say, the psychology of effective workout music, she may see a link to an article about it on Facebook, wonder if her Taylor Swift mix is optimizing her exercise regime, and click through to read on. Social media users can also use these online fora to debunk pseudoscience – a phenomenon Zivkovic refers to as media hygiene.

For Zivkovic, promoting science as a whole is wrapped up in promoting the careers of budding science writers. To that end, he and Khalil Cassimally, science blogger and community manager of, have started The SA Incubator, “a place where we explore and highlight the work of new and young science writers and journalists, especially those who are current or recent students in specialized science, health and environmental writing programs in schools of journalism.”

Zivkovic makes ‘em an offer they can’t refuse: mentorship and a high-traffic online forum on which to highlight their work. That’s why they call him The Blogfather.

Image source: Bora Zivkovic

The Pocket Breathalyzer


Here’s one way you could avoid a nerve-wracking, potentially life-altering breathalyzer test on the side of the road: give yourself a breathalyzer test before you even get behind the wheel.

Breathometer aims to enable smartphone users to do just that. The company, which is still raising funds on, will offer a $20 breathalyzer device that plugs into an iPhone or Android headphone jack. People can then blow into the keychain-sized device and learn their blood-alcohol level. If a user is over the legal limit, the app suggests convenient transportation alternatives.

Drunk driving remains a persistent public health problem in the U.S. In 2011, drunk driving killed almost 10,000 people and injured roughly 350,000 people, according to MADD.

It seems unlikely that the Breathometer will take heavy drinkers off the road. People who are slobbering drunk will either: a) not drive, because they know they’re not fit to, or b) drive anyway, because they’re in the habit of driving regardless of how inebriated they are.

The Breathometer may, however, be helpful for people who drive buzzed. People who, after a few beers, think: I can make it home, It’s not that far, I don’t feel fully sober but I think I can drive. These are the socially aware, anti-drunk driving among us; the ones who want to do the right thing and don’t always know they’re doing the wrong thing.

The big question on my mind is: would people use the Breathometer? Would you?

Image source: Breathometer

Can You Hear Me Now?

HeadphonesYou’re sitting on a quiet bus and suddenly you wonder, “Where’s that music coming from?” After a few moments, you realize the sound is bleeding from the headphones of the 20-something sitting a few seats away. And – if you have some old lady tendencies, like me – you think, “If I can hear the music that well, imagine how loud it is for her. She’s gonna’ blow her eardrums.”

Can you relate? Apparently, Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg can. Bloomberg recently announced the city will dedicate $250,000 to developing a social media and marketing campaign to caution young people against listening to music at too high a volume.

Although it may sound silly, the campaign seems warranted. One in 8 children and teens as well as 1 in 6 adults under age 70 have permanent hearing damage due to excessive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The problem: how can the city convey these negative effects to Generation Y? To understand the target audience and create a winning campaign approach, health officials will conduct focus groups and interviews with teens and young adults, according to the city Health Department’s fundraising arm, Fund for Public Health.

Still, officials likely face an uphill battle in getting teens – notorious for ignoring long-term consequences of their actions – to listen. Especially if they have their headphones on.

Image source: Derek K. Miller via Flickr

Solving the Hunger/Waste Paradox

Food wasteRoughly fifty million Americans – including over 16 million children – live in food insecure households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The brutal irony? Forty percent of our nation’s food ends up in the trash.

The FlashFood mobile app aims to redirect these wasted resources to those who need them, according to Sustainable Brands. The app allows restaurants, catering companies and hotels – all of which contribute to the $250 billion worth of food wasted each year – to notify FlashFood when they have food they’re about to toss. FlashFood personnel then pick up the food and distribute it to local community centers.

FlashFood, developed by a group of Arizona State university students, builds on the work of existing food recovery organizations, such as the Society of St. Andrew. But FlashFood offers something the others do not: convenience. I suspect that few companies with excess food take the time to track down, call and coordinate with food recovery groups. Getting companies to donate food rather than chuck it likely means streamlining the donation process – essentially, making donating food as convenient as throwing it away. In my opinion, a mobile app has the potential to increase the ease of donating and, as a result, up its appeal. Do you agree?

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CDC App Lets You “Solve the Outbreak”

CDC's Solve the Outbreak AppWant to be an epidemiologist without the hassle of getting the degree? With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s new “Solve the Outbreak” iPad app, you can.

The app enables users to play a member of CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service and develop a game plan for tackling three outbreak scenarios (all based on real events). To do so, users must heed clues, review data, and make decisions such as whether to quarantine the affected population.

According to CDC Director Tom Freiden, “The goal is to use new technology to provide an engaging, interactive way for users to learn how CDC solves outbreaks, thereby increasing general knowledge about real-life public health issues.” The app also provides users with health tips and disease information. Adds Carol Crawford, Chief of CDC’s Electronic Media Branch: “This is a great learning tool for science teachers, teens, young adults, public health enthusiasts and mystery lovers.”

Does “Solve the Outbreak” appeal to the detective, gamer or perpetual student in you?

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