2013-04-01

Co.Exist

An Online Platform That Recruits Your Peers To Help Stop Diabetes

Prevent is a program that creates small social networks of people at risk for diabetes so they can work on changing their behavior and avoiding the disease together.

Diabetes is a health epidemic that shows no signs of slowing down. In the U.S., one in 10 adults will have diabetes by 2030. That’s not even counting all the millions of other people (79 million in the U.S. at last count) with pre-diabetes. Enterprising startups are beginning to realize that employers and insurance companies might be more attracted to ideas that prevent the disease in the first place—instead of those that throw more money at an already costly problem.

One of those startups is San Francisco-based Omada Health, which has developed a program, called Prevent, that lets people at risk for diabetes sign up for a 16-week coaching program. The company, founded nearly a year ago, just raised a $4.7 million series A round of funding after going through the Rock Health accelerator program. I recently sat down with co-founder Sean Duffy to take a tour of the Prevent platform.

Duffy went to Harvard Medical School for a joint MD-MBA, but dropped out after spending a summer interning at Ideo. "I spent a year there after what was supposed to be a summer," says Duffy. Partway through the year, Ideo partner Dennis Boyle created an opportunity for Duffy and his cofounder (former Ideo employee Adrian James) to explore business opportunities in chronic disease prevention and management. "We felt that a lot of the best designed products had no or very little medical backing," explains Duffy. "There are a lot of evidence-based products out there, but the bulk of them are bad. You don’t look at them and think 'I would use that.'"

Prevent, created along with a third cofounder, Andrew DiMichele, is an attempt at making a product that’s both evidence-based and well-designed. It uses a curriculum based on a famous clinical trial—the National Institutes of Health-sponsored Diabetes Prevention Program. The trial showed that in-person coaching for people with pre-diabetes in physical activity, diet, and behavior change can lead to weight loss and cut the risk of developing diabetes by 58%.

Now the CDC is rolling out prevention programs based on the study across the U.S.. "We felt there was an opportunity to help people by building a web complement to those efforts," says Duffy. The only problem: Most successful behavior change programs involve a lot of personal contact with coaches—if you miss a session, someone will probably call you. Says Duffy: "Our goal was to create a web system that had a shot at delivering similar results by using some fundamental design."

Omada’s four-month program costs $120 per month. Customers receive a wireless transmitter-equipped scale at the start and a pedometer partway through the program. Participants in Prevent are divided into groups based on body mass index, location and age. The approximately 12-person groups are like mini social networks—people have profile pictures and introductions, and everyone communicates in a public forum (participants can’t private message each other so as not to create any group fragmentation). A health coach leads each group. Former participants can apply to be health coaches, who are paid based on performance.

At the beginning, everyone in the group logs a baseline weight. Prevent sets a common weight loss goal of 7%. Participants can see how far their fellow group members have come towards the weight loss goal, but they can’t view the exact amount of weight lost. "It’s a really powerful peer dynamic," says Duffy.

Once a week, each group receives a new lesson from the Diabetes Prevention Program—that lesson is incorporated into the UI, which changes weekly. Weight loss progress isn’t shown at the beginning because participants haven’t had a chance yet to lose weight.

At the beginning of each phase, members get a welcome kit in the mail. At the start of lesson five, for example, they’re sent a pedometer and a food tracking journal. "The idea is that you have to mail people things. It makes it relevant, it makes it real," notes Duffy. In the next version of the kits, Omada wants to print motivational photos on water bottles.

So far, 230 pre-diabetes patients have gone through the program, and 40 of them applied to be health coaches afterwards. The results are promising: Participants lost an average of 13.7 pounds after 16 weeks of coaching. That’s 6.4% body weight—just a hair under the 7% goal.

Prevent is now open to the general public—Duffy says they have the capacity to handle 10,000 people right now—but Omada is also in talks with health systems and employers.

Duffy stresses that Omada isn’t just about diabetes. "Down the road, we want to build a whole suite of products that are unbelievable and are world-class products but are based on literature," he says.

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