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Friending Your Doctor Online

A new social-networking service aims to improve the flow of communication by connecting doctors and patients online.

A social network that doctors can prescribe to their patients: that’s the idea behind a new San Diego startup called Wellaho. The company creates software to manage and support patients after they leave the hospital by bringing together different parts of a patient’s support system. Doctors, family, and friends could all be part of the network, which can be customized for individual patients. The system will begin clinical trials in three large San Diego hospitals next month, with a larger rollout planned for 2012.

Other patient-based networks, including PatientsLikeMe, HealthCentral, Inspire, CureTogether, and CaringBridge, are gaining popularity with the chronically ill. But this one is different, says Wellaho’s founder, Naser Partovi. “It’s prescribed by a doctor, and it involves clinicians as well as friends and family. It’s much more controlled.”

Social networking is only one aspect of the system, says Partovi. It also gives each patient access to information about treatment options and clinical trials, and a place to record and monitor ongoing health progress in addition to communicating with doctors or caretakers. “All three of those parts—learning, monitoring, and supporting—are personalized for each patient,” says Partovi. “We know their diagnosis and treatment codes, and we can build a special system around each diagnostic code.”

Since the system would be integrated into a hospital’s records, it could both pull relevant information from an electronic health record and send back information that a patient had collected on his or her condition. It also would comply with regulations about the transfer and storage of private medical information. Messages sent to medical teams would be encrypted.

Partovi expects that insurance companies or patients will ultimately pay a monthly fee to use the system. Doctors and hospitals, he says, will receive a giant benefit: continuing care outside the hospital system without too much work. Currently, doctors’ offices have to telephone patients to monitor their health—Wellaho would let them monitor remotely through the information a patient uploaded. “So a doctor would know immediately if the patient’s heartbeat is faster than normal and what has been going on the last week or month.”

The clinical trials will test whether Wellaho’s system of outpatient monitoring and networking reduces the number of people readmitted to the hospital. Research shows that clinical outcomes are improved when patients are supported online, says Gillian Hayes, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. “But social support can mean different things. If you are looking for social support to have someone listening to you, but instead you get someone bringing you a meal, that’s still support, but a different kind.” Hayes adds that doctors often say they don’t have time to do online checkups, but nurses, caseworkers, and health coaches could offer patients online support.

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