Over the last decade, Google has become one of the most influential elements in the healthcare field. The ready availability of medical information online has turned us all into experts of sorts. Today's patients are more informed, proficient and will often even suggest alternative treatments to their doctors.
While this sounds like a good thing for patients, it has its drawbacks. "Dr. Google" could well wind up exacerbating anxiety rather than alleviating it, since search results often find hair-raising descriptions of personal experiences rather than reliable medical content.
The Israeli company First Life Research has launched Treato, a search platform that aggregates billions of user-generated medical posts and pulls out their meaning with proprietary algorithms. The final product, Treato's online service, is a broad-ranging catalog of treatments and symptoms which provides users with clear, organized information.
Searching for a drug, for instance, will bring up comparable alternative drugs as well, together with patient satisfaction ratings and a list of prevalent side effects. Searching for a symptom will bring up the common medical treatments that appear in patient posts about that symptom, as well as other symptoms associated with it. Treato, which went online in September 2011, brings together more than a billion patient voices from multiple sites on the Web. Today, the site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each month, and two weeks ago, a new version was launched.
"Our goal is to become the Waze [social GPS] of the medical world," says Gideon Mantel, co-founder of First Life Research, but better known as a founder of the Internet security company Commtouch. "We collect everything people write about health. The statistical assumption is: if it doesn't appear in the data, it doesn't exist." continues Mantel. "The crowd decides what to write about. We simply organize it and lay it out for our users."
Treato's free site is currently tailored to the U.S. market. The health forums where the data is gathered are American, as are the medications and treatments mentioned in them. The company is currently exploring the option of expanding the service to additional countries, including Israel.
First Life Research, which currently employs 25 people, was founded in 2008 by Mantel, Dr. Itzik Lichtenfeld, and attorney Jacob Sabo. So far the company has raised $9 million, including several million put in by the founders. The primary investor is Reed Elsevier, the largest medical publisher in the world.
Elsevier, which also invested in the Israeli online translation company Babylon, invested in Treato in all of the company's three financing rounds, the most recent of which was just completed.
The site also has several private investors, among them Prof. Shmuel Cabilly and Chanoch Barkat. The company is currently in the process of raising funding from an American venture capital fund. The company expects to break even in 2013, and possibly even to make a profit. The founders hope to reach revenues of $10 million in 2012.
All the ways to say 'Ouch!'
"You would not believe how many ways there are to say muscle pain. Understanding an everyday discussion about a medical subject is much more difficult than say, discussions about the stock market. That's why it took us four years to develop the solution," says Mantel.
To tackle this issue, Treato uses an analytical method. First, the "company detective" locates the selected term. Then, 500 posts are sent to medical students who pull out the semantic content - symptoms mentioned, medications used, patient satisfaction levels and so on. Finally, a designated algorithm is developed so that future encounters with similar texts can be handled automatically.
"Most of the work is technological, developing the algorithms. This process is one of the reasons we're so confident in our product. It would be hard to duplicate our work. We already have a vast knowledge base which is ever growing," says Mantel.
'90% of health tweets are spam'
The Treato business model is based on revenue generation from its advanced analytical capabilities. The data housed in the company's servers regarding prevalence of use and users' satisfaction levels, with various medications is extremely valuable for organizations such as pharmaceutical companies, researchers and health companies.
"We already have several paying customers," says Mantel. "We are initially approaching marketing departments, since the benefit is very clear to them. Later on, we will try to penetrate more research-minded customers. The kind of information we can provide - such as the estimated number of people who say a medication helped them - does not exist anywhere else online," he adds.
In addition to analyzing the content uploaded to health forums, Treato collects information shared on Twitter. That said, the social media world is not the company's focus.
"People don't like to talk about antidepressants on Facebook. In fact, people discussing their medical experiences tend to be meticulous about their privacy. This is why our most relevant data resides in the Internet's long tail rather than in Facebook or Twitter. We use information found on Twitter, but from what we have gathered, 99% of it isn't relevant. I'm not exaggerating - that's the real number. 99% of health tweets are online pharmacy spam and only 1% describe personal experiences," states Mantel.
Still, Treato's premium B2B services will highlight data collected from social media. "The real-time monitoring aspect is significant for us and very important to organizations," explains Mantel. Currently Treato is working on a mobile app. "We want people to be able to access Treato from everywhere. We've flipped the pyramid. It used to be that the consumer was the last to receive the information. With Treato, the user is the first to know, in real time. The moment people understand that is the moment they will start using our service. Wide consumer adoption will accelerate the service's usage by businesses as well."
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