Back before the big-buttoned Jitterbug became a hit, Serge Loncar had his own idea to make a senior-centric cell phone.
He'd worked in product development at Johnson & Johnson before leaving to work for tech startups, including a firm that made a disposable hearing aid.
"I had worked for this aging population for three-and-a-half years," he said. "What was missing, in my mind, was a mobile phone designed for seniors."
Potential investors, however, weren't so enthused. After a year of failing to raise the capital needed to make the expensive product, Loncar realized, "I had to do something I could afford to do on my own," he said. "That's why I went to SMS — text messaging — because it was the simplest technology out there."
Loncar is the founder and CEO of East Brunswick-based CareSpeak Communications. The firm makes text-messaging based health care products aimed at boosting medication compliance and disease management.
"We believe the mobile phone is the most personal accessory," he said. "It's really well positioned to play a very important role in managing your health and wellness."
Loncar worked on the product for five years, but he's been working full time since last year after bringing on a sole investor. The company now has five full-time and two part-time employees.
Last year, the firm announced a deal with Minnesota-based United Health Group, which plans to roll out CareSpeak's products to its 75 million members.
Paulo Machado, CEO and founder at the consultancy Health Innovation Partners, said Loncar is part of a booming trend of health care-focused mobile technology.
"There's a tremendous amount of companies that are in the process of building mobile solutions, or that have existing solutions that are being evolved," he said.
Those companies include small startups and major health care players. For Apple Inc.'s iPhone alone, there are more than 15,000 health care-focused applications, he said.
Loncar said text messaging has a number of benefits. It requires only an intermittent cell signal, and it allows the provider to pick up the tab for a text, similar to a 1-800 number. Most importantly, Loncar said, "The reality is, the majority of the world still does not have smart phones."
CareSpeak offers a number of different services, all centered on the idea that digital reminders can make a big difference in health care.
"People who don't want to be compliant — they're not going to be compliant," he said. "This helps people who are forgetful or who are confused. A lot of times, people have confusing regimens, and they're not sure what to take when."
One service sends patients reminders when to take or refill their medications. A diabetes program asks patients to input their blood glucose readings, and can automatically send doctors — or parents, in the case of juvenile diabetes — a message alerting them if the patient enters a dangerous reading.
Loncar said he knew his idea made logical sense, but he said his pharma background taught him that data would be critical. He partnered with Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York, on a study to see if text messages would improve outcomes in pediatric liver transplant recipients who were taking anti-rejection medications.
After a year of using the texting service, only 2 of the 41 study participants had an acute rejection episode, compared to 12 the previous year.
Dr. Jeffrey Carson, the Richard C. Reynolds Professor of Medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said there's a mix of reasons patients do or don't adhere to their prescribed regimens. He said a text message system will likely work for some patients.
"It makes sense to me," he said. "But from a physician's perspective, it would be a fair amount of effort and I don't know if there would be any compensation for that effort, so I don't know if people would want to do that."
Carson said the system would likely be most successful if nurse or other non-physicians could handle the workload, and particularly if the health care system were more oriented toward rewarding doctors for improving the health of a specific group of patients, rather than the current pay-for-service model.
Loncar said the results became an effective sales tool, and CareSpeak has additional studies lined up for 2012.
Machado said continually escalating health care costs will likely fuel a continued demand for cost-cutting solutions, including the mobile variety. The big picture, he said, is that for years, life has been becoming more and more digitized — a trend finally catching up to health care.
"Health care has kind of held back from doing that by and large," he said. "I think health care's resisted as long as we could."
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