Propeller Health Makes Mobile Monitoring Easy for Seniors

With an aging U.S. population and the push to control healthcare costs, entrepreneurs are rushing to develop innovative consumer health products that could help patients avoid expensive hospital visits.

But for some healthtech startups, a key question is how to design products for a wide range of ages, including some older folks who don’t own a smartphone or still think “the cloud” is just a mass of condensed water vapor in the sky.

Propeller Health, a startup based in Madison, WI, knows this challenge well. Its mobile-connected recordkeeping service for respiratory disease patients was primarily designed for patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—two conditions often treated with the same medications, but that generally affect different age groups. Asthma is more commonly diagnosed in younger people, mainly children, while COPD is more prevalent in senior citizens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That has led Propeller Health to tweak its product and cater the way its services are delivered to different populations, said David Van Sickle, the company’s co-founder and CEO. Propeller Health’s platform is built around a data-collecting device that attaches to a medication inhaler and can note the time and location for each use, information that is stored and wirelessly transmitted to a user’s smartphone or a Qualcomm base station plugged into the wall at home.

With older COPD patients, the emphasis is on getting the data to doctors and family members who can remotely monitor a patients’ use, Van Sickle said.

“We spend less time trying to teach them through smartphones about [environmental] triggers [of COPD attacks] and their level of control,” Van Sickle said. “It’s really biased toward helping physicians and care teams be able to efficiently and effectively monitor a big panel of patients and identify folks who aren’t doing as well as they could be … and giving them an opportunity to intervene before [the patients] end up needing acute medical attention.”

For the patients, Propeller Health wants the technology to “blend into the background” so the focus is on better management of the condition, Van Sickle said.

The Qualcomm device is key for Propeller Health customers who don’t own smartphones and don’t have Wi-Fi set up at home. It uses a cellular radio signal to transmit inhaler data to Propeller Health’s server, Van Sickle said.

Propeller Health’s services include sending reports to customers that summarize their medication use in order to help them see patterns in their symptoms. For those who don’t use e-mail or text messaging, Propeller Health will send them reports via snail mail or talk things through over the phone.

Physicians and other caregivers can also receive patients’ data, although they might not choose to receive electronic alerts for each inhaler use by all of their patients because it could become overwhelming, said Propeller Health Chief Marketing Officer Erica St. Angel. Caregivers tend to more closely monitor at-risk patients, say someone who was just released from the hospital after recovering from a severe COPD attack. On the other hand, family members, like an elderly patient’s adult children, often choose to receive text message alerts for each inhaler use, she said.

The company is also developing a more advanced sensor device that requires less energy and therefore can last longer between charges, Van Sickle said.

“That’s part of our key strategy with COPD—remove every measure of effort that’s required,” Van Sickle said. “Make it as simple as possible for them to attach a sensor to their medication and get going. … We want to be able to serve the population who is low-tech or no-tech.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of tech-savvy senior citizens. AARP, the advocacy group for people age 50 and up, has an initiative called Health [email protected]+ that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship in consumer health products that will benefit its constituents.

The initiative’s programs include a live pitch event at an AARP-hosted conference, in which healthtech startups not only demo their products directly to investors, but also to AARP members.

“Over time, as we have seen this [older] demographic come to events, there is an increasing understanding of technology and a comfort with the whole phenomena” of smartphones and cloud-enabled devices, said Sanjay Khurana, AARP director of innovation and thought leadership, and an entrepreneur who has worked on three tech startups. “What industry needs to step up is addressing how technology is delivered.”

That means simplifying the product design, packaging, and the messaging to older customers, Khurana said.

Some companies, like Propeller Health, are doing a good job of that, he said. He also cited AliveCor, a San Francisco-based company that created a heart monitor device that attaches to the back of a smartphone. AliveCor has presented at the AARP live pitch event, and feedback it got from AARP members influenced the startup to add a service that lets customers get an analysis of their electrocardiogram data from a cardiac technician within 30 minutes or a cardiologist within 24 hours, Khurana said.

“It’s no longer about building clunky products and services for healthcare apps,” Khurana said. “I think [mobile] health care aspires to the same usability as maybe social media.”

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