A better self-diagnosis than Google? Boston-based Buoy has an app for that

March 10, 2017
Boston Business Journal

By: Jessica Bartlett

When ill, an estimated 72 percent of Americans search Google about their symptoms before doing anything else. Andrew Le, for one, is sick of search bars telling people they have cancer.

The resident at Harvard Medical School said that’s not even the only problem with online diagnostic searches. While in a former residency in the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital, he saw lots of patients show up in the emergency room that could have easily been cared for in a less intensive setting. On the other end of the spectrum, his own father waited at home too long when he was sick before seeking medical care, he said.

Le and his three co-founders subsequently created Buoy Health, which could be described as a smarter WebMD.com — one that includes 35,000 ways to describe symptoms and 1,675 diagnoses. With $2.5 million in funding, led by retired chair of Partners HealthCare Jack Connors and with participation from 14 other investors, the application launched in an IOS app and online March 8.

“We don’t want to replace doctors at all. But we want the emotional intelligence of a physician in a computer program,” said Le, CEO of the company.

Buoy, based out of Boston, functions like a game of 20 questions. Type in a symptom or pick from a basic list of common ones. The app will then ask you detailed questions to drill down into your diagnosis. Questions can range from simple — like how frequently are you coughing — to specific, such as whether you've been around pigs lately (a common question to diagnose swine flu).

Even if a patient may have cancer, Le said, the company made a conscious decision never to diagnose someone with cancer through their app.

“Let’s say you literally had cancer and we said you have cancer. I don’t think that’s a win for anybody here,” Le said. “The benefit of that isn’t that great. You will probably discount it, it’s a computer program. It seems cold. That’s a tough thing to tell somebody. On the downside if you don’t have cancer, you will never trust us again…if you flip it around and say it’s a lung issue requiring a CT scan or biopsy — we’re saying it could be something, this is what you would do to figure it out.”

The program was created starting in 2013, with the help from Warner Slack, a Harvard Medical School professor who is known as the “father of cyber medicine,” and Ryan Adams, a Harvard School of Engineering professor who is an expert in machine learning.

The application is free to use for patients. The app will eventually make money by partnering with insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and doctors offices to help direct patients to follow up care or to promote certain products once they have a diagnosis.

The nine-person company is working on raising another round of funding now, and is hoping to cover 1 million lives — either through users or users entering symptoms on behalf of a family member.

As of Aug. 1, the beta version already had 4,100 users that have used the app 8,500 times.

Le hopes to include a more personalized interface that will remember that you told it you don’t smoke, or that will email you days after you enter your symptoms to check in on you and further narrow down a diagnosis. Beyond that, the company is looking to broadening its diagnosis set to encompass more benign conditions, such as eye twitching. The goal is to carve out a sliver of the 70.4 million hits Web MD receives from organic searches, and the 206 million unique visitors the site receives every month.

Eventually, Le envisions partnering with insurers to integrate their information and data with theirs.

“Let’s say you could take a picture of your card,” Le said. “If we know that information, we could show you the types of doctors you can see, how much they are, who is in network or out. This is the front line.”

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