Gaper.io’s VP of Sales Mustafa Najoom sat down with a short chat with Jim St. Clair, the COO at WellnessWits and discussed the role and potential of AI in healthcare especially in helping solve some of America's healthcare woes.
WellnessWits is a mobile patient engagement platform that seeks to help healthcare professionals and clinicians digitize, standardize, and automate care delivery to chronically ill patients. Their solution employs an end-to-end open platform for virtual Shared Medical Appointments (SMA). A shared medical appointment is one where several patients are visited by a healthcare professional as a group for follow-up care and/or management of chronic conditions.
A provider clinician can see more than one patient at a time (typically five to eight, but could be up to 10) in one single encounter. WellnessWits app has mechanisms for capturing the encounter notes as well as using billing codes to perform that.
Additionally, they’re developing what is called Group Therapeutics. Jim likens it to being in a Facebook group except that instead of being on an unregulated platform, it is done in conjunction with cohorts of other patients under the guidance of a physician. Their mobile app is being used by a number of providers already in the Houston area where the company is based and rolling out to a number of additional providers as well.
WellnessWits is working on an AI roadmap that is being built in partnership with IBM who are their channel and development partner leveraging their Watsonx Community.
When we say “AI”, most people immediately think of the broad generative AI applications seen in mainstream news. However, WellnesWits’ approach is a kind of a crawl-walk-run where they leverage the capabilities of Watsonx’s chatbot feature to answer a set number and different types of questions from patients as they are using the app. This is intended to help guide them about their appointments, care plans, and attending sessions.
The company will also explore other tools that will do discovery against a discrete set of clinical data and evidence-based documentation that supports their particular conditions or treatment plans. So maybe one practice is a gastroenterologist and another practices and nephrologist – there arise differences between obesity, glucose monitoring, blood sugar, and diabetes for the former and kidney disease, kidney failure, and other such problems with the nephrologist. Both would have their own specialties and cadres of information that WellnessWits wants to support the patient with.
Such tools will provide services beyond those of just a chatbot by asking questions and gathering data based on physician-curated, evidence-based information that is documented within the system and is retrievable.
WellnessWits is also looking to ultimately dive into generative AI models and platforms like Hugging Face and others in order to build large learning models over the course of the next 12 months.
Jim explains that a foundational role for WellnessWits is to be able to assist patients in managing their care journey by engaging with their clinician, managing their care plan (primary or specialty), and being able to take control of their overall wellness in a variety of ways.
Healthcare, as an industry, is faced with a big challenge for the next decade.
Jim recounts a time when he worked with another company that was a technology partner for robotic process automation. Back then, no one was talking AI and everything was all about robots and RPA. Any related presentations had to be supplemented with a disclaimer that assured everyone that robots were not out to take anyone’s jobs robots – “Robots will take your jobs when all of you retire”.
This was often said to a room full of people on the cusp of retirement. Many jobs done by such individuals don’t necessarily have a line of people waiting to take their place due, in part, to the aging population of the US. Surveys by most large physician associations suggest that doctors in the country have a median age of 55. If you add 10 years to that, most of this population will be at retirement age. Then, when you factor in stories of burnout, difficulties with reimbursement, and things that are challenging physicians to practice medicine these days, it’s very easy to see that when doctors get an opportunity to retire, they will.
There are already concerns about how doctors are replaced, and how new pipelines need to be built to replace physicians. Platforms like WellnessWits can bridge any such gaps by helping to engage patients, manage time with their providers, manage their care plans in a more efficient manner, and leverage AI to offer virtual assistance/care and guidance in the absence of a doctor.
Jim goes ahead and advocates for an increased and more active role of AI in healthcare by citing how certain demographics in the US have severe limits to specialty care and hospitalization. 40% of rural hospital facilities and healthcare facilities are at risk of failure in the next few years. This generates an immediate need that has to be addressed in some way with new technologies, and AI offers a very promising outlook in being able to do that.
Jim succinctly wraps his advice for aspiring founders in two words: open source.
“I come from a background in Linux Foundation working in open source. The Linux Foundation maintains the LFAI and Data Foundation which has a tremendous amount of focus on open source tools, machine learning, security, etc…I think that between things like the newly released executive order from President Biden as well as the AI Act in the EU, and other similar pieces of legislation, the transparent, accountable nature of open source is going to be critical for AI success over time to avoid a real Hindenburg type incident, whether that is open source around the LLMs that are in use, the algorithms or some combination with both. Anthropic and Hugging Face, which I’ve already mentioned are very heavily involved with open sourced AI.”
Jim surmises that if the US government continues its trend building on the executive order, there may be a possibility that CMS will demand or mandate that AI that is used in Medicare and Medicaid (which constitutes such a huge part of America’s Healthcare spend) have to have open source transparency built specifically for healthcare regardless of how other industries may do things.
Open source may not be as necessary for marketing or customer service, but when it comes to evidence-based medicine and practices in demonstrating clinical veracity, Jim opines that open source is going to be hugely significant.
The US healthcare industry has a lot of systemic and foundational challenges in both how care is delivered, as well as how that care is reimbursed.
Jim highlights the need for having a robust economic mechanism in place for doctors to deliver services to whomever might need them – whether your patient is a six-month-old baby or a 65-year-old man, at the end of the day, that’s what healthcare comes down to. A lot of that economic mechanism is severely challenged by the systemic model that the US has for delivering healthcare.
No matter what kind of new model there is in healthcare consumerism, a patient’s ability to manage their data and have tools like AI to assist them with their care journey and managing their care plan is going to be a critical part of empowering people helping them weather the storm in case of tumultuous changes and determining how and where you receive care, and how that care is compensated and reimbursed.