Automated empathy allows doctors to check on patients daily

David Larson, 66, had knee surgery to repair a meniscus tear in December. He used the HealthLoop technology and says it helped detect a blood clot that could have put him back in the hospital.

Story highlights

  • California startup HealthLoop uses automated empathy emails to help doctors check up on patients daily
  • Almost one of every five Medicare patients discharged from a hospital must be readmitted within 30 days

A health care startup made a wild pitch to Cara Waller, CEO of the Newport Orthopedic Institute in Newport Beach. The company said it could get patients more engaged by "automating" physician empathy.

It "almost made me nauseous," she said. How can you automate something as deeply personal as empathy?
    But Waller needed help. Her physicians, who perform as many as 500 surgeries a year, manage large numbers of patients at various stages of treatment and recovery. They needed a better way to communicate with patients and track their progress.
      The California startup, HealthLoop, told Waller its messaging technology would improve their satisfaction and help keep them out of the hospital. High satisfaction scores and low readmission rates mean higher reimbursements from Medicare, so Waller was intrigued.
      So far, she's been surprised at patients' enthusiasm for the personalized — but automated — daily emails they receive from their doctor.
      "There's a limited number of resources in health care. If you do 500 joint replacements in a year, how do you follow up all of those patients every day?" Waller said. The technology "allows you to direct your energy to people who need the handholding."
        "Automating empathy" is a new healthcare buzzword for helping doctors stay in touch with patients before and after medical procedures — cheaply and with minimal effort from already overextended physicians.
        It may sound like an oxymoron, but it's a powerful draw for hospitals and other health care providers scrambling to adjust to sweeping changes in how they're paid for the care they provide. Whether the emails actually trigger an empathetic connection or not, the idea of tailoring regular electronic communications to patients counts as an innovation in health care with potential to save money and improve quality.
        Startups like HealthLoop are promising that their technologies will help patients stick to their treatment and recovery regimens, avoid a repeat hospital stay, and be more satisfied with their care. Similar companies in the "patient engagement" industry include Wellframe, Curaspan, and Infield Health.
        HealthLoop's technology is being tested at reputable medical centers including the Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente-Southern California, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Newport Orthopedic Institute in Orange County, company officials said.
        Doctors can send daily emails with information timed to milestones in surgery prep and recovery and ask patients or caregivers for feedback on specific issues patients may face during recovery.
        The doctors may write their own email scripts, as Newport Orthopedics' physicians did, or use the company's suggested content. An online dashboard helps doctors and administrators keep track of which patients are doing well and who might need more follow-up care. Patients can also communicate with office staff about medications and office visits. Their responses to daily emails can trigger a call from the doctor's office.
        A patient might see this message: "How are you? Let me know so I can make sure you're okay. I have four questions for you today."
        Such a call may have been a lifesaver for David Larson, a Huntington Beach retiree. After Larson responded "yes" to an email that asked if he had calf pain after knee surgery, he got a call from his doctor's office telling him to come in immediately. An ultrasound confirmed he had a blood clot that could have landed him back in the hospital — or threatened his life. With treatment, the blood clot dissolved and he resumed recovery.
        "There were times when it was like, 'Oh brother, they're contacting me again,' but none of this would have been caught if it wasn't for the email," said Larson, 66. "So it was more than worth it to me. Now I'm back to walking the dog, surfing, riding a bike."
        How to keep patients like Larson from hospital readmission because of avoidable complications after a hospital stay has long been one of health care's most vexing and expensive challenges.
        Almost one of every five Medicare