Catalia Health seeks to improve treatment adherence through personal robots

Catalia Health's social robot Mabu is being rolled out as a treatment adherence aid for patients living with chronic illnesses.

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Image: Supplied

AI-powered robots can empower chronically ill patients to manage their health better in the absence of healthcare professionals, according to San Francisco-based startup Catalia Health.

The three-year-old healthtech startup, which recently raised $3.75 million in a seed round led by Khosla Ventures, has developed software that pairs with its robot, called Mabu, and works with chronically ill patients to increase medication adherence, improve symptom management, and reduce the likelihood of being readmitted into hospital.

Catalia Health founder and CEO Cory Kidd told ZDNet that his startup is the culmination of 20 years of research into human-robot interaction.

"When we're face to face with someone, we're more engaged in the conversation, we create a stronger relationship, we actually find that person to be more credible, more trustworthy, and then it turns out that this could carry over into the world of technology," Kidd said.

"You can put a robot in front of someone that can look them in the eye while talking to them, and get the psychological effects of a face-to-face interaction that you're never going to achieve through a screen-based interface.

"This is not just a nice, in-the-lab theoretical finding; my PhD shows that it actually does work in the real world."

Pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers offer Catalia Health's hardware and software package as a free service to customers living with chronic illnesses.

If the offer is accepted, the pharmaceutical company transfers the patient's information to Catalia Health -- the startup's technology directly integrates with the systems pharmacies use -- and the patient is enrolled into the care management program.

In the ensuing days, the patient receives a package with everything they need to get their "personalised healthcare companion" up and running. Once Mabu is plugged in, it introduces itself to the patient, confirms the patient's identity, and starts "establishing the nature of the relationship", Kidd said.

"It has a conversation about what's happening with that patient, asking things like 'I know that you're taking X medication every day, what time do you usually take it?' So the first conversation is about how the Mabu and the patient can work together," Kidd added.

"From there the conversation goes in one of two directions. The patient can ask for Mabu to give them a reminder at whatever time they usually take their pill, and the other type of conversation is the everyday check-in. It starts with something like 'Hey, how are you feeling?', and based on the patient's answer, it can go off in many different directions or different conversational topics."

The CEO said speaking to Mabu is somewhat similar to speaking to a personal virtual assistant such as Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, and Apple's Siri, except the conversations are not open-ended.

"The patient can't just walk up to Mabu and ask a question ... We're deliberately not doing open-ended conversations, we're not trying to solve artificial general intelligence, we're not building a chatbot. This is a focused conversation around a particular disease or a particular treatment that is helping that patient," Kidd explained.

At present, Catalia Health's products are designed to work with patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and kidney cancer. Kidd said the company is tackling one chronic disease at a time, given the amount of work that goes into ensuring Mabu can provide value to every user.

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Cory Kidd, founder & CEO, Catalia Health.

Image: Supplied

"The key to this working is really how it understands and adapts to each patient, and develops that relationship. This is not a robot that is designed as 'one size fits all'," Kidd added.

"It's about how we can help patients with a particular disease; what things we need to check in on every day, week, or month; what advice we need to give them.

"If we're talking about one of our heart failure patients who needs to be measuring their weight and blood pressure every morning and making sure they follow a strict low sodium diet, that's very different from one of our rheumatoid arthritis patients, who should be getting a moderate amount of exercise every day and take a pill once a day."

About half the team has technical backgrounds, while the other half is a mix of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and writers, Kidd said, adding that this combination of expertise is what makes Mabu "work really well".

According to the World Health Organization, there is a shortage of more than 7 million healthcare professionals worldwide. This is compounded by the fact that adherence to long-term therapy for chronic illnesses in developed countries averages at 50 percent, based on statistics from 2003.

In addition, Kidd said patients tend to take medication for just a quarter of the time they need to be taking it to gain any benefit from it.

While Mabu does provide reminders to patients, Kidd noted that medication non-adherence is not necessarily a result of poor memory.

"What we're trying to do is understand what is preventing patients from staying on therapy today. The reasons patients are going off therapy do not have to do with forgetting to take their pill," he said.

"We're talking about chronic disease, therefore higher instances of anxiety or depression, stress-related issues, as well as side effects. These are the real reasons why it's really tough to stick to treatment, and these are the things Mabu talks to patients about."

Kidd added that the data gathered from patient interactions can be used to identify trends and analysed both on an individual level and more broadly across the healthcare industry.

"There's potential for enormous cost savings by helping patients better adhere to therapy and to have more data about what's actually going on with that patient," he said.

"All of the data is coming back to our backend system ... so anything that needs to go out to someone immediately, that will happen ... There's also a monthly summary report that we provide the patients so they can take it to the doctor and talk about it."

Additionally, Kidd said Mabu is not designed to replace human healthcare professionals; rather, it's intended to improve the relationship between patients and practitioners.

"We better connect them back to the human caregivers -- the doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists. Yes, they're there and available, but there is only so much time they have that they can give to each and every one of their patients. We provide a medium to improve that communications process and frequency," he explained.

Catalia Health's products are offered as a subscription service to pharmaceutical companies and healthcare systems, and once a certain level of scale is achieved, it makes sense to add payors such as insurance companies to the list, Kidd said.

The company is focusing on the US market for the time being.

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