Tonic Health Looks to ‘Gamify’ Dull Doctor Office Forms

Fun isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when you’re asking thousands of people about their last mammogram. But Sterling Lanier is wagering that one of the dullest parts of modern healthcare, the standard patient questionnaire on a clipboard, can be made fun. It’s the organizing principle behind the startup he co-founded, Tonic Health.

“Imagine you go to a doctor’s office and instead of a clipboard, you are handed this,” says Lanier, pulling out an iPad with an open game application that looks a little like Fruit Ninja. “It says things like, ‘Welcome,’ ‘Rest Easy,’ and ‘Have Fun.’ When’s the last time someone had fun in the healthcare system?”

Tonic Health, based in Menlo Park, CA, has been testing this concept of whether healthcare can be fun for about the past 18 months. It’s borrowing principles of video gaming and consumer marketing to help healthcare organizations collect better data from patients. The idea is to create customizable patient intake forms that a patient can fill out with a few finger swipes on an iPad, instead of the usual pen and paper forms. Tonic has already made some headway by testing its software program with the Athena Breast Health Network, which is using Tonic to help screen 150,000 women in California for breast cancer risk, and follow them for decades.

The Athena Breast Health Network, directed by Laura Esserman at UCSF, is just one of the first early adopters exploring whether fun in the waiting room can translate into more thorough, more accurate patient information. The UCLA Division of Digestive Diseases has also agreed to try the Tonic system, and Lanier says he’s in talks with a number of “large enterprise health systems” on the East Coast and in the Midwest that are interested in jazzing up their data collection capabilities. The company, self-funded at the moment, has a team of 10 employees.

“People sometimes ask, are you a data collection company? No, we’re a patient engagement company,” Lanier says. “When you increase patient engagement, you increase data accuracy, and you increase the hospital’s ability to communicate with that patient.”

Sterling Lanier, CEO of Tonic Health

Lanier came to this line of work after previously founding Chatter, a market research firm that he says played a role in a number of big-budget consumer marketing campaigns, including the “Talk to Chuck” campaign for Charles Schwab. He got exposed to healthcare through some pro bono marketing work, and became intrigued with ways to spiff up this change-resistant, highly regulated, heavily lawyered industry.

Tonic looked around at the electronic medical record industry and saw plenty of competitors in various niches, and steered clear. It saw opportunity, however, in the mundane patient intake forms.

Here’s how the product is designed to work. A patient comes in, and picks up an iPad loaded with the patient intake form developed by Tonic. In the case of the Athena Breast Health Network, they are attempting to collect some in-depth family history and health information, in the form of a 700-question form that asks things like whether your mother, grandmother, or aunt had breast cancer. The sheer number of questions that Esserman’s team wanted answered—700!—got Lanier’s attention.

The Athena network “had thought a lot about the back end, they had implemented and had a fancy database. But on the front end, they just had a boring paper questionnaire.” That was the part that got Lanier fired up, with an attempt to beat pen and paper.

So the IT challenge was set—create a 700-patient questionnaire that all these women would want to fill out, thoroughly and accurately. Eighteen months later, the company has … Next Page »

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