Baltimore-Based SymCAT Helps Diagnose Your Health Symptoms

September 2, 2012

12:00 pm

Even with health insurance, a trip to the ER can devastate a fragile budget.  That being said, not taking a trip to the emergency room when one is called for is a dangerous proposition.  The question then becomes, under what circumstances is it appropriate to go to the hospital?

This is the all-important question that the Baltimore-based team at SymCAT is attempting to answer.

Tech Cocktail caught up with Tolu Babalola, who handles strategy for Symcat, to learn more about their service, the future of their company, and what role BluePrint has played in the company’s early success.

Tech Cocktail:  What was the inspiration behind SymCAT?

Tolu Babalola:  Given our engineering background and then going to medical school, the thought of combining the two had never been far from our minds. Using artificial intelligence to help aid in diagnosis is a natural, albeit difficult, application. We had some algorithms in mind, so when we found the CDC data set we use, we knew we needed to try them out. However, it wasn’t until we started seeing patients in the emergency room that the idea for Symcat really took form. So many people were there with minor complaints like colds or back pain because they didn’t know there were other care options available to them. The problem is that it is hard to determine what options are appropriate without first having a sense of what the likely possibilities are. We decided to try to expose this data to patients in such a way that they can make more informed care choices.

Tech Cocktail:  Is there a long term plan with the data captured by people’s symptom submissions?

Tolu Babalola

Babalola:  We plan to use data from Symcat to refine the service and create even more useful tools. For example, we use symptom queries to determine new concepts that need to be entered into our database and make suggestions as to other symptoms a user might have–much like an Amazon recommendation.

We have a longer term vision for a smart, personal health record. There are other PHRs out there, but they offer little beyond a place to store data. The user experience is generally pretty poor. We think patients will be more interested in PHRs if they were informative and solved real problems (eg helping me decide if I need to schedule a doctor’s appointment).

There’s another way to look at this. Currently, the interest in health care data tends to focus on the enterprise. Our theory is that patients can do more with this data. The trouble is that data by itself does not tell an informative story. We want to help people understand the story their data can tell them. Think personalized health analytics. It will take cooperation from users and time, but our hope is that we can build a community of data sharers that can provide insights on everyday health problems.

Tech Cocktail:  With the early use, what % of people’s health symptoms should typically require a trip to the ER?

Babalola:  We are in the process of attaching some numbers to it, but based on site behavior we suspect that few actually go to the ER after using Symcat. The question of how many people should go to the ER is not an easy one to answer. Something like 10% of users are told based on their symptoms that the ER is a reasonable choice (among others) given their symptoms. Is that too many? Too few? You can imagine that half of those (ie 5%) actually going to the ER may be a good target for people who are showing up to a doctor’s office with fever, for example, but the population who are just searching on the Internet are likely to be less sick. It is really an open question, though, as there is still a lot we don’t understand about how people use the Internet for health research. One of our aims to to better elucidate the relationship between sickness and Internet behavior.

Tech Cocktail:  Beyond funding, what role has BluePrint played in SymCAT’s development?

Babalola:  We started Symcat with very much a build-it-and-they-will-come attitude. That was natural given that our expertise was more in health and technology and certainly not business. Yet, we quickly learned that in order to make Symcat self-sustaining, we would have to cultivate the business as well. Blueprint has done a great job of building a community of health care experts and executives, many of whom continue to offer their insight and guidance. The pithiest explanation is that the 3-months of the program were for us a mini-MBA.

Of course, there is additional value in the “accelerator experience.” The pace is definitely faster, possibly because everyone around you seems to be working hard too. More importantly, it’s great to have a natural cohort of friends who are going through similar challenges. Blueprint did a great job of putting together a group of companies with fun, interesting founders with whom we enjoying hanging out and staying in touch.

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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