Chris Edson wants to save the NHS half a billion pounds over the next 10 years. To do this he’s tackling one of the biggest health issues facing the UK…with an app.
“If 100 years ago the biggest problem we were facing were all around vaccinations and viral disease we’ve now advanced so far in medicine that we’re giving ourselves these diseases,” says Edson. “Within the NHS we saw this growing swell of diseases that came from our own lifestyle habits. The main diseases that are killing us now are things like heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes.”
Edson partnered with Mike Gibbs to launch OurPath in London in June 2016. Since January, the app has helped 500 patients change their unhealthy lifestyle habits over a three month period and drop an average of seven kilograms in the process. In May, they secured a half a million pound investment from funds including American venture capital firm 500 Startups and UK-based accelerator Bethnal Green Ventures.
Edson has a background in engineering and quantum computing but a passion for medicine. When he found himself knocking the dessert out of the hands of a family member who was on the verge of developing Type 2 Diabetes, he threw his energy into developing OurPath. “He went on the program and lost 10 kilograms of weight,” says Edson.
OurPath is based on the principles of third wave Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). One of the biggest problems with getting people to change their lifestyle habits is overcoming moments of self sabotage or a perceived a failure in their efforts. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is the idea that you do not try and change someone’s thoughts and rather encourage them to accept they feel that way and move towards a personally set goal. OurPath asks patients on the program to list a set of values at the start of the program – “I want to be healthy for my kids” for instance – and guides them to behave in a way that is aligned to those values.
The other key part of the program is a set of scales linked to the patient’s phone over a 3G network. When they weigh themselves that data is sent to the phone but its also sent to the patient’s personal OurPath mentor – a registered dietician available 24/7 – and to their group of about 10 peers who are also completing the program. “The group is structured a lot like WhatsApp with eight or nine other people,” says Edson. They provide the coaching and encouragement to stick with the program. With this data gathered from the scales the mentoring can be tailored to each patient. “If someone hasn’t weighed in for a while we know we should reach out to them and see how they’re doing, if they’re struggling and if there is anything we can help with,” he says.
Edson and Gibbs have announced a partnership with pharmaceuticals company Roche in the UK, with a target of putting 750,000 people through the program over the next five years. This is where the savings for the NHS comes in. “You can quantify it really easily,” says Edson. Based off guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence that say three kilograms of sustained weight-loss is cost effective if the treatment costs £1000 or less, Edson says OurPath will cost the NHS just £300 over a person’s entire lifetime. The £700 difference for each patient through the program until 2020 will save the NHS £525 million.
Now they want to expand within the NHS. As well as being privately available, OurPath is prescribed as a Type 2 Diabetes measure in small pockets of the NHS across the UK. “Traditionally the NHS isn’t very good at adopting innovation so it’s been, it was a good two years of development in order to get our first NHS commission, which is really slow for a startup.”
The slow pace comes from NHS regulations, approvals, trials, data security, and evidence required to get that first commission. “It’s like fintech but 10 times worse because you’re dealing with people’s health,” says Edson. But, with their partnership with Roche Edson and Gibbs are able to think about expanding globally next year as well as doubling down in the UK. “Because it’s so difficult to get there that once you get there you should focus on getting more traction in the NHS,” says Edson.
But, Edson isn’t deterred from making changes to a system that is entrenched in old habits. “Basically what we trying to do is change how people’s brains work after they’ve spent 30 years making these same food choices, what we’re figuring out is how you get them to change.”