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The App Will See You Now: Better Puts Health Care in Your Pocket

Better offers 24/7 access to the Mayo Clinic's expertise, but arrives in a crowded space.

The latest take on telemedicine in the age of apps will launch Wednesday morning, as Better premiers in Apple’s App Store.

The Palo Alto, Calif., startup of the same name has partnered with the Mayo Clinic to offer users 24/7 access to a personal health assistant, nurse line, automated symptom checker, personalized health information, electronic medical records and more.

When necessary, consumers can interact with the prestigious nonprofit health practice’s doctors and specialists as well, who can directly prescribe limited types of drugs over the phone. The service will cost $49 a month, though a free version will include everything but the human interactions.

“Health care is good at buildings, but they’re not good at mobile — at extending reach,” said Geoffrey Clapp, the co-founder of Better and a digital health veteran. “We wanted to be the tip of the spear; to answer, how do you take great medical services and extend them through technology to where patients are?”

Better provided its first peek at the service a year ago, at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference. The company raised $5 million from the Social + Capital Partnership and Mayo Clinic. The 20-person company has been conducting a private beta version of the service with around 1,000 people for the last few months.

“We collaborated with and invested in Better to create a powerful way for people to connect with Mayo Clinic in their homes and communities, wherever they are,” said Dr. Paul Limburg, medical director of Mayo Clinic Global Business Solutions, in a statement.

Still, the official launch lands the startup in a busy space.

Doctor on Demand emerged late last year offering $40 video consultations with physicians over Android and iOS smart phones, after raising funds from Venrock, Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures and others.

American Well has been providing similar services online since 2009, and unveiled mobile apps last fall enabling video-chat visits for $49. Breakthrough offers a version of the concept for the mental health field, providing patients with online “telepsychiatry.”

Even Facebook might get in on the action, with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg saying its recent acquisition of the Oculus virtual reality technology could enable “consulting with a doctor face-to-face” — but, you know, not.

Then there’s a long list of apps and services competing to offer health information or more efficient access to doctors, including WebMD, AskMD, HealthTap, ZocDoc, Grand Rounds and many more.

These companies are arguably all racing to reach the leading edge of an industry shift known as the consumerization of health care, the notion that technology is allowing people to take a more active role in their well-being. Rather than strictly abiding by doctor recommendations and health insurance allowances, the apps, information and services promise to help people more accurately diagnose problems, select superior physicians, find more effective treatments or generally maintain better health on their own.

But identifying a trend and building a profitable business on top of it are two different things. It remains to be seen which startups and business models will emerge as winners, or how much will ultimately change.

For example, it’s unclear at this stage whether most patients will want to forgo in-person physician visits. Or if they go the virtual route, whether they’ll prefer a one-time fee when they have an acute issue — or the monthly subscription model that Better is pursuing, which would often fall on top of health insurance and other medical costs.

For now at least, health insurance won’t cover the cost of Better, but customers can pay for it through pre-tax flexible spending accounts.

I asked Clapp why consumers will want to spend money on ongoing fees, pre-tax or otherwise, for a service that many only use or think about occasionally. On average, Americans visit doctors less than four times per year.

He countered that it won’t appeal to everyone, but that neither does hiring accountants and architects. In other words, there are plenty of people who will pay for experts to manage complex tasks on their behalf.

In the case of Better, the health consultants can help schedule appointments for multiple family members, identify appropriate specialists, secure second opinions, provide reminders about follow-up care — or answer questions about worrisome symptoms in the middle of the night.

“It uses technology and people to remove the complexity from health care,” Clapp said.

But he also acknowledged it’s an unfamiliar model that could discourage early adoption.

“We’re really trying to change consumer behavior and that’s an uphill battle,” he said. “That why we’ve got the investors we have, who have a long-term view on where health care is headed.”

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