What began as a way for a software developer to keep families and friends updated on his daughter’s condition became a business opportunity for Open System Technologies Inc. in the health care industry.
After a year-long pilot with Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids-based OST has begun to pitch the CareCircle service to health systems across the U.S., starting with the more than 100 hospitals that are already clients.
“We are actively having conversations with other health systems to offer this,” said CareCircle Product Manager Laura Vaughn. “There’s a sizeable opportunity with health systems across the United States.”
Health care also represents one of OST’s largest vertical markets for I.T. and patient experience services.
Spectrum Health became the first customer for CareCircle. The Grand Rapids-based health system launched the service on a wider scale at its hospitals at the start of April after working with OST for a year to design, prototype and validate the service.
OST looks to build from there, said Chief Innovation Officer Jim VanderMey. He hopes to see two dozen hospitals offering CareCircle to patients and their families within 24 months. VanderMey describes CareCircle as “a niche product but also a conversation starter” for OST with health care clients.
“I think we could have an opportunity to be doing one new customer every month and then work from there,” he said. “We’re taking a tech startup approach to this. We’re happy to start small, learn, iterate, and work from there.”
Part of the systematic approach stems from a tendency in health care to want to know “where it’s already been installed and what benefit they achieved from it” when presented with an innovation.
“We had to answer those questions before we take it to a broader market,” VanderMey said.
CareCircle is a software platform that allows users to register and create a page to post private updates on someone’s condition or share images, as well as to control who has access to that information. Page creators can set privacy settings, one of which gives them control over who has access.
Users also can direct messages to certain groups of followers, such as friends, family and co-workers, for example.
The advantage over using social media sites such as Facebook: No ads. Hospitals, based on their size, pay a subscription fee to CareCircle and offer it to patients and their families as a value-added service, VanderMey said.
CareCircle provides patients and families “the means to stay connected with friends and loved ones in a safe, interactive environment that is user-friendly but that also emphasizes patient privacy and security,” said James Bonner, senior director of safety and patient experience at Spectrum Health.
VanderMey recalls a personal situation in which he went to a social media site where ads for holistic therapies popped up constantly based on the words typed into the site to provide updates on a person’s medical condition. That’s the nature of social media sites, which capture data and use algorithms to target digital ads to users based on their online habits, he said.
“Social media sites are architected from the ground up for public sharing and for data to be harvested. It is the core of what they do,” VanderMey said. “We felt the most honest economic model was the hospitals paying for it as an extension of their brand and then providing it as a service to their patient population or to their community.”
Nathan Loding, a software developer at OST, came up with the idea for CareCircle after problems communicating with friends and family as his daughter underwent chemotherapy.
“When my daughter started treatment, we struggled with communicating updates to family and friends. The existing platforms either lacked the privacy or functionality we needed,” Loding said. “I knew there was a better way and that OST was uniquely positioned to make it a reality. That’s how the idea for CareCircle was born.”
Loding took his idea to VanderMey and OST President and CEO Meredith Bronk. They agreed to pursue development of the platform as “the right thing to do,” VanderMey said.
“It’s a safe place to share in the midst of some of the most difficult life circumstances you can imagine, and that’s why we did it,” he said.
OST then approached Spectrum Health, a large and long-time client. Spectrum Health granted OST access to its Patient and Family Advocacy Council. Fifty families tested CareCircle, providing feedback and validation from real users, said CareCircle Product manager Laura Vaughn.
That pilot with Spectrum Health led to changes in the platform to make signup “very easy” and enable users to approve everybody who comes to the page, Vaughn said.
“I’ve worked on developing various products over the years and I would say one of the biggest challenges is finding real users who are committed and interested to use your product when it’s not in a perfect state yet and try it out and really give real feedback and live feedback,” she said. “That was very helpful.”