Question: “Hello, anyone here with ovarian cancer? I am on chemo (after surgery) and I find myself tired and nervous all the time. Is that normal?”
Answer: “Hello, I have ovarian cancer stage 3: found Sept. 2015. I’m on chemo yes I’m tired, nervous, dizzy well good luck to us”
This is an example of the conversations cancer patients, their families and concerned friends are having on the mobile app called Belong, which enables cancer patients to exchange experiences, information and tips, while also getting access to medical professionals and experts in the field.
The app was developed by Israeli entrepreneurs, including Eliran Malki, the 45-year old co-founder and CEO, who lost family members to cancer. They all realized that at various stages of their loved ones’ treatment critical information was missing, and experience and knowledge were sometimes only attained in hindsight.
There was a gap that needed to be filled, they felt. Valuable information could be shared to help others manage the process in an intelligent, efficient and easy way. Patients should be able to shake off their sense of loneliness and anxiety and get support and guidance from others who understand their predicament.
So they created an app that aims to help.
“There is no reason for every patient to go through this fight all alone and learn solely from his own experience,” said Malki, who lost his grandfather and aunt to cancer. “The experience and knowledge of many can help, improve and streamline the process and in some cases even the result.”
The app can be downloaded at no cost for Android or iOS devices. Users can log in under an alias if they wish to, and define their fields of interest.
And so begins the virtual journey.
Through a personal treatment task journal, the app provides tips, suggests questions the patient should ask their doctors, and offers information and reminders about each procedure and task ahead.
When patients know what questions to ask before a particular surgery — e.g., which needle they should request for chemo, when they should abstain from vitamins and supplements — “it makes a world of difference,” Malki said.
Belong also uses the crowd wisdom of social networks to help patients navigate their illness. User groups set up according to fields of interest provide online assistance and support from other patients based on their experiences; they share treatment procedures, get tips for recovery and coping with pain and fear. Families can also open private groups with selected members using a private communication channel.
In other groups, doctors and medical professionals address questions from patients and their families, e.g., ask the doctor, ask the radiologists, ask the researcher, clinical trials, palliative care and side effects.
In addition, a digital medical binder within the app enables patients to keep their medical records in one place, without carrying heavy files; the documents can be shared privately with family members, friends, mentors and physicians.
Belong has partnered with most of the hospitals in Israel, Malki said, as well as the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, Canada.
The app, which launched in January this year, already has a few thousand users in Israel, Malki said. Patients find out about it by word of mouth and some doctors have begun distributing Belong brochures to their patients, Malki said.
What makes the app different from other chat forums available on the web is its easy mobile access — people can ask questions while in chemo — and the fact that all the information, chats and documents are in one place.
Most of Belong’s doctors and specialists are based in Israel, Malki said, though the company intends to expand its reach to the US in the near future. Users there will default to a US section when entering, he said. The app already supports multiple languages: English, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, and in future Chinese as well.
The incentives for hospitals and other healthcare providers to be part of the Belong system is that it helps their patients lower stress levels and also makes them more prepared for meetings, saving time and money for both parties, Malki said. The company’s main revenue model predicts charging the service providers and HMOs and insurance companies for the use of the app in the future, Malki said, as it can significantly save costs of up to thousands of dollars per patient and saves time by better preparing them for treatment.
Dr. Raanan Berger, director of the Institute of Oncology at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan and secretary of the Israeli Society of Clinical Oncology and Radiotherapy, manages the personalized cancer medicine forum at Belong. He does not get payment for it, nor is he linked to the company in any way other than providing his consulting services for free within the app.
“The app provides patients with something they really need, which is guidance and direction,” said Berger. “Beyond the diagnosis and treatment routine they get from the medical system, they need a deeper understanding about their concerns, something that will allay their fears and give them some peace of mind to be able to cope.”
The system is accessible and user friendly, he said. “As a doctor it allows me to contribute to the community but also to get exposed to cases and information that I may not have accessed otherwise,” he said.
The fact that the app is on his mobile phone makes it easier for him to answer questions, even on the go, and enables him to increase his specialist brand in the community in Israel and abroad, he said.
Belong has to date raised $1.5 million from angel investors and will soon start a Series A funding round, said Malki, who has formerly founded and managed tech companies including MoreVRP, acquired by EMC.
Global digital health funding reached a new high in 2015 totaling almost $5.8 billion in 889 deals, compared to $952 million, and 160 deals globally in 2010, according to data compiled by New York based data company CB Insights. Funding in 2016 has remained high, at $3.6 billion in the first half of the year, but the number of deals has slowed, with just 476 deals this year, putting it on course to fall below the number of deals in 2015, the data company said in a July 17 report.
“We want our company to do good and help patients and their families with cancer,” Malki said. “But you need to set up a good team, technology and business for that, because if the business side isn’t strong, then you are not bringing enough value and can’t continue doing good for a very long time.”