The Mayo Clinic medical center in Rochester, Minnesota.

Ariana Lindquist, Bloomberg

How it works: Input your symptoms, answer questions, and an analysis will suggest possible causes and whether you should see your doctor.

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Mayo Clinic builds 'Better' app to expand its name with consumers

  • Article by: Dan Browning
  • Star Tribune
  • April 16, 2014 - 10:55 PM

The Mayo Clinic wants to help you feel “Better.”

That’s the name of a new mobile app service launched by the Rochester-based health care provider, in partnership with a Silicon Valley venture capital firm and an accomplished tele-medicine entrepreneur. It’s part of Mayo’s overarching goal to put the clinic’s expertise into the hands of 200 million consumers.

The service will allow users to tap Mayo’s knowledge bank and symptom checker at no cost. For $49.99 a month, a family — from grandparents to grandkids — can get 24/7 access to Better’s professional personal health care assistants and Mayo’s own nurses and other professionals.

The venture is the latest example of Mayo’s efforts to diversify its business model and build loyalty among consumers. Those efforts are being driven, in part, by health care overhaul measures that could trim Mayo’s revenue by at least 20 percent.

“We have been challenged by our board and our president and CEO to think about how can we make Mayo Clinic knowledge available to anyone, anywhere, any time. And this is a very nice, novel way for us to reach out in that direction,” said Dr. Paul Limburg, medical director of Mayo’s Global Business Solutions group.

“Mayo has recognized that really for 150 years we have provided … the highest quality health care. But we’re also trying to bring knowledge out to the population in a more scalable way. So we talk about not only health care, but also health information and health guidance.”

The personal health assistants can advise users on issues ranging from selecting a doctor to creating a family health plan or sorting out how to get the most out of their health insurance.

Of course, if users find themselves in need of specialized care, Mayo wants to be “top of mind,” said Dr. David Hayes, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, which is spreading awareness of the Mayo brand by linking directly with other providers in something akin to a franchising operation.

Mayo’s Global Business Solutions group began working on the app project about two years ago. About a year later it began collaborating with Geoffrey Clapp, a successful entrepreneur in telemedicine, and Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive who founded a $450 million venture capital firm called The Social+Capital Partnership in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mayo Clinic is a limited partner in Social+Capital, which has already provided $1.19 million to another start-up called Ambient Clinical Analytics. That company, which was started through Mayo Clinic Ventures, uses algorithms to help intensive care physicians make quicker, better decisions by filtering relevant patient data to them only as they need it.

Building relationships

Clapp built the Health Hero Network into one of the largest tele-health vendors in the world before selling the firm and was working as an adviser on ways to simplify health care for consumers when he met Palihapitiya. Social+Capital was searching for opportunities with the potential to benefit humanity. And Mayo, like Clapp, was looking for ways to simplify health care for consumers while impressing them with its expertise.

“In general, health care is really good at building buildings. But Mayo was looking for, ‘How do we get outside of the building and extend our brand and our knowledge,’ ” Clapp said.

Mayo and Social+Capital agreed to put up $5 million to launch Better.

Users create personal profiles and interact with Mayo’s public databases.

“So if I’m interested in finding out about a specific topic — colon cancer would be my area — we can provide the person with expert-derived information about that topic,” Limburg said.

What it can do

He said users can input a symptom, say a cough, into a tool developed by Mayo experts. That prompts a series of questions and may result in an analysis suggesting possible causes and that you see your primary provider. Premium subscribers could talk to a live nurse and share additional data via the Internet.

Clapp described Better as a combination of people and technology that provides users with a health care safety net built on Mayo’s knowledge. Because of state laws, Mayo can’t advise users in a prescriptive way like it might in a clinical setting, he said. But it can suggest what type of care is appropriate, and the Better personal health assistant will coordinate the care with the user’s local providers.

Beta users have been testing the service for about seven months. “We’ve put hundreds of people through and have a number of success stories,” Clapp said.

Zane Wagener, 25, of San Francisco, said he uses Better primarily to manage his health insurance.

“Unlike most people, my job, as a child care provider, keeps me away from my computer and phone for pretty much all business hours. So I essentially have to take time off work to make phone calls to insurance companies,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“After sending a message through the app to my personal health assistant, she was able to correct an error in my insurance, effectively saving me hundreds of dollars, all without me having to once deal with my insurance company,” he said.

Wagener said Better also is useful when you’re sick. “Instead of having to get myself to the doctor last time I was sick, I was able to talk to Lauren [the personal health assistant] through my phone, all without having to get off my couch, which was terrific,” he wrote.

Clapp said he expects Better to evolve along with other health-tech products.

“What you won’t see us do is build medical devices. But what you’ll see us do is integrate with medical devices. So blood glucose meters, blood pressure cuffs, even EKGs and things like that” will eventually be able to plug in their data, he said.

No personal data are saved on a user’s mobile device. It’s encrypted for security reasons during transmission and remains encrypted on the Better servers. The company says it won’t sell the users’ data.

Clapp said the company understands that the monthly subscription fee for its premium service may be too expensive for some people and is considering various solutions.

“Mayo has that great saying of, CEOs and farmers sit side by side in the waiting room. We share that philosophy, without an actual waiting room,” he said.

State laws related to health care costs and reimbursement complicate things, he said, but Better is seeking an equitable solution.


Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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