More than a year and a half ago we first reported on the development of Symcat, a Big Data-powered symptom checker. That article was then picked up by The Atlantic and Lifehacker, becoming one of the most popular Medgadget stories. We recently heard from Symcat that they launched a new version, and thus we took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with one of the company’s founders, Dr. Craig Monsen.
Shiv Gaglani, Medgadget: Can you describe what’s new at Symcat?
Dr. Craig Monsen: Symcat has always been about using data to check symptoms and determine the next course of action. Historically, this has meant guiding patients towards one of 135 medical specialties and helping match them with the most appropriate healthcare professionals.
The new release is all about putting the user in the pilot’s seat for his or her healthcare. In addition to information about what type of doctor to see, users often want to learn about relevant medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) and procedures. Symcat is now packed with information on these topics, covering both the medical aspects and the typical price of each procedure or medication. Including prices is something new to the field, and allows our users to weigh the costs and benefits of available treatment options. As always, this information is powered by the best data available, now over 60 million patient records from over 40 different data sets.
To support this new emphasis, we did a complete interface redesign. We wound up keeping some parts that have worked well and completely overhauled areas where users have gotten confused in the past.
Medgadget: How has the user experience changed?
Dr. Monsen: As Symcat becomes more powerful, we’re constantly working to make sure it stays simple and accessible for our users, most of whom are not statisticians or medical professionals. In the new release we were driven to create a TurboTax-like wizard to guide users through entering their symptoms, evaluating potential diagnoses, and considering treatment options. The flow is more direct, resulting in our users getting answers more quickly.
Another big shift is content. We’ve added 5 times more medical topic pages and revamped the old. See, for example, cough or methotrexate. These pages incorporate a wealth of new data and make those data more accessible. Users can learn about related symptoms, medication side effects, and commonly performed diagnostic tests to name a few features on the topic pages. Moreover, all of this content is just a click away via our new search interface.
Last but not least, Symcat features a convenient dashboard to help users record, view, and manage their healthcare interactions in one location. This is where users can get a summary of their visits to Symcat, store information about their medical history and medications, or even discover what at-risk conditions for which they should get screened.
Medgadget: Where do you see Symcat going from here?
Dr. Monsen: Our goal is to help patients become pilots (or at least co-pilots) in their own healthcare. In our view, the best way to do this is to bring as much data as possible under one roof and organize it to answer patient questions.
Medicine is very complex, and patients often struggle to take control of their care. Symcat helps break down the complexity by asking a series of simple questions, much like you might experience at the doctors office. What’s great about this approach is that as you interact with Symcat it builds a health profile for you automatically. You can use this profile to view your health history, bring your doctor up to speed quickly on your symptoms, or to pre-populate fields the next time you use Symcat. Moreover, Symcat uses your health profile to identify conditions you are at risk for, recommend appropriate screening, and flag potentially dangerous drug interactions.
We call this the “smart personal health record” because it builds over time by just remembering your answers. For each piece of data you provide, you get back not only the data-driven answers you were looking for, but also recommendations down the road based on your health status.
Going forward, we aim to make Symcat’s smart personal health record a key tool for patients to navigate the healthcare maze. We’re innovating every day toward this goal by adding new data, refining our models, and streamlining the interface to meet our users’ demanding expectations.
Medgadget: Can you delve a bit into the technical details of Symcat and what makes it innovative?
Dr. Monsen: Health information on the web is too generic. No matter where you go, it all comes from the same medical textbooks. Electronic medical records for the first time are creating massive amounts of health data to analyze. Some companies are analyzing this data to help pharmaceutical companies or health care providers; we are using it to directly help patients. To do that we have built a polyglot health vocabulary that allows us to link disparate datasets together and apply cutting edge statistical modeling to translate them into personalized health insights. Don’t know what “hemoptysis” is? No problem. We directly translate your “coughing blood” into the relevant health concept and analyze over 60 million patient records to figure out what people with your symptom had. Moreover, by learning from our users, the Symcat algorithm continues to improve over time.
Our newest release extends this analysis beyond symptoms and diagnoses. Want to know more about a condition? You can read all about it as well as related diagnostic tests, prescribed drugs, treatments, pricing information, and providers all pulled straight from the data. In short, Symcat has data for everything you need to plan your next step in medical care.
Medgadget: How do you plan on monetizing to sustain Symcat?
Dr. Monsen: Americans spend a lot on healthcare, to the tune of $7,000 per person annually according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Our aim is to make patients intelligent health care consumers and help them spend less for higher quality care. Right now, insurers and health networks are our best partners for monetizing because they most directly pay the consequence when patients choose suboptimal care. For insurers, this means offering Symcat as a service to help patients easily discover in-network, cost-effective care. Health networks are a little different. In this setting, Symcat helps plug patients into the most appropriate care option within their offerings and allows the network of providers extra flexibility around what information they can share on their provider profile.
As Symcat grows, we plan on introducing premium features and it is likely that Symcat will become a paid consumer service. For the moment though, we’re rewarding our early users with open access.
Medgadget: Who would you consider potential partners and/or competitors in the space of patient engagement/education?
Dr. Monsen: Our users are our most important partners. We rely on our user feedback to guide Symcat towards the best product it can be.
Next we’re looking to partner with insurers. By integrating their coverage data into Symcat, we can tailor recommendations to each individual’s health insurance coverage, making it that much easier for users to choose the most appropriate next step for wellness, diagnosis, and treatment. Similarly, we plan to work with accountable care organizations, new hospital and health care provider networks that are changing how medical care is provided and reimbursed.
WebMD is our biggest competitor. While it has become something of a household name, we have all had the experience of going onto their website and being told we most likely have cancer. This “cyberchondria” is driven by the fact that without applying actual data, more serious conditions tend to dominate search results and certainly our thinking about what could be wrong with us and what to do about it. Moreover, companies like WebMD that make all their money on advertising have every incentive to keep you concerned and clicking: more clicks means more money for them. Symcat solves this problem by being the first company to analyze data to answer these questions. Our business model is aligned with our users getting the quickest, most accurate answer available.
Flashback: Driven by Data, Symcat Studies Your Symptoms…
Link: Symcat symptom checker…