“I wasn’t looking to start a company,” says Barry Finette, co-founder of Burlington-based health tech startup THINKMD. He already a had a busy day job, as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and a pediatric critical care specialist at the UVM Medical Center. Speaking on a rainy day this fall in a conference room at VCET’s downtown coworking space – where most of the company’s small team is based – Finette explains what compelled him, to take the leap and incorporate in summer 2014 as a registered Benefit Corporation.
“I’ve been a pediatrician for 28, 29 years,” he says. As director of the Global Health and Humanitarian Opportunity Program at UVM, Finette has long been committed to thinking – and acting – globally, participating in medical research projects and relief missions in countries around the world. “With mobile technology, I saw a way that I could transfer my skills in critical and acute care to people who don’t know how to care for kids.”
Telemedicine isn’t a new idea – there are numerous apps that allow a doctor in a city somewhere to remotely diagnose of a range of medical issues using a cellphone camera, for example. And there is no shortage of symptom-checker apps. But, says Finette, these “virtual doctors” don’t actually make decisions the way a real human doctor would. Instead, most follow a simple binary protocol – walking the user through a series of yes/no questions that lead you down a specified path toward a diagnosis. The problem with this decision-tree model is that it never considers a lot of potentially relevant information that a real doctor would be factoring into her thinking as she did a comprehensive patient exam. As a result, existing online symptom checkers are right only about half the time.
THINKMD’s flagship product, MEDSINC (Medical Evaluation and Diagnostic System) does something different. It walks a minimally skilled user through the process of assessing a patient like a doctor would, prompting them to input a range of specific data points – including vital signs and other indicators from a physical exam, as well as patient history. Then the software – which is downloaded to the user’s phone so it works even without a wireless connection – runs all that information through Bayesian weighted pattern recognition algorithms to diagnose the patient, assess the severity of their illness, and recommend appropriate treatments.
Initially, MEDSINC is focusing on a range of serious conditions, such as pneumonia and other infections, in children up to age 5, and pre- and post-natal women. “Maternal and child health are the biggest needs globally,” says Finette. A complementary product, called DATASINC, allows population health monitoring, aggregating the information collected from individual MEDSINC users to illuminate disease trends and emerging threats.
Finette and his team have tested MEDSINC on four continents across settings ranging from hospitals in the United States to villages in Burkina Faso to urban slums in Bangladesh. They’ve found that after minimal training on using the app, frontline health workers who are neither doctors nor nurses are able to make assessments that agree with the professionals’ a remarkable 85% of the time. In July 2017, Save the Children International became THINKMD’s largest NGO customer to date, deploying MEDSINC with its field workers in Dhaka, a city of 14 million people in Bangladesh.
Finette plans to expand both geographically, and with a more a parent-friendly version of the app, which will soon be distributed through Vodafone in South Africa. The company is also talking with potential U.S. customers. The business has been “exciting but crazy,” says Finette, who when we spoke had just returned from Bangladesh, touching down briefly before a trip to Mexico and Ecuador. THINKMD – which has raised $1.5 million in three rounds from global impact investor DAI, Vermont’s FreshTracks Capital, and others – has about 10 core members, who work full- or three-quarter time. And they’re ready to grow, with current opening for software engineers, database experts – and, “who buy into the mission” of digital health, FInette says. “If you can code, if you like to learn new things and to be challenged, we ‘re hiring.”