Major heart surgery and chronic pain left Zach Gotlib craving meaningful connection with people who could relate what he was going through. He tells Health Tech World about the ‘selfish’ reasons behind the creation of SelfiHealth, an app that tackles social isolation through peer-to-peer health support.
Born with a congenital heart defect, Zach Gotlib was just 12-years-old when doctors told him he would need open heart surgery one day.
“As I progressed through high school I always knew I was a little different, but I didn’t want to be seen as the ‘heart kid’,” he says.
“It had a big impact on me from an emotional and physical perspective. You have no idea what to do, there’s no other 12 year olds in your town who need open heart surgery. I became extremely depressed and afraid.”
After having surgery to replace a valve on his heart at the age of 20, Zach describes getting a ‘second lease of life’.
“The reality is the surgery was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he continues.
“I was given such an appreciation for life. It gave me perspective and an understanding that things could always be worse. I was so determined to get my life back and start doing the things that I wasn’t able to do.”
He moved to New York to go to law school, got a job at a top law firm and started volunteering for the American Heart Association and sharing his story. In 2017, he was named their ‘Survivor of the Year’. For the first time in his life, Zach says, he was speaking to people who had been on a similar journey to him.
It was while running marathons to raise money for the charity, that he ended up with a hip injury that resulted in several failed surgeries, leaving him living with chronic pain for the last six years.
“It brought me full circle,” says Zach.
“Here I was – with a completely different condition – but I again felt alone, confused and scared. So I did what any person does, I went to Google.
He continues: “I would post in Facebook groups and online forums and get responses from 85-year-olds, telling me about their cats and dogs and political beliefs. That had the opposite effect, I felt like the only 30-year-old in the world with these issues. I realised very quickly that there hasn’t been much investment in our most powerful resource, human connection, as it relates to health.”
This was the chain of events that led to the creation of SelfiHealth, a mobile app which matches members with others on similar health journeys to provide meaningful connections and peer-to-peer health support. Kind of like Tinder, but for chronic illness.
Zach co-founded the platform with good friend, Jared Firestone, who had suffered a stroke while the pair were at college together.
“We put our heads together and realised that there are all these apps for dating, but for something as important as healthcare, we throw people in this giant room based on just the condition,” says Zach.
“Still to this day, I’m a little selfish in building SelfieHealth because I’m looking for that one person who is experiencing the exact same issues as me.”
The importance of human connection
Zach was not alone in feeling isolated as a result of his condition. Over half of US adults aged 18 to 22 years old say they have looked online for people with health concerns similar to their own and when asked to think about the most recent time they found health peers online, 91 per cent of young adults said it was helpful.
The importance of human connection has never been more apparent. Earlier this year, the US Surgeon General declared a ‘loneliness epidemic’ with a lack of social connection now known to be as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Studies show poor social relationships (social isolation, poor social support, loneliness) are associated with a 29 per cent increase in the risk of heart disease and a 32 per cent increase in the risk of stroke. And these effects can begin early in life and stretch over a lifetime, with research also showing that childhood social isolation is associated with increased cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and blood glucose levels in adulthood.
Susannah Fox, Former CTO of US Department of Health and Human Services, and now an advisor to SelfiHealth, said: “The benefits of such a connection seem intuitively obvious and have been confirmed in academic studies. Yet, as I’ve seen in my work both in the private sector and as a former chief technology officer in the US Department of Health and Human Services, peer-to-peer health networks are largely being ignored by businesses and even most clinicians. These are satisfied customers for a product that nobody is selling – yet.”
Zach believes that in providing a platform for social connection and peer support, SelfiHealth has a fundamental role to play in maintaining the health and wellbeing of its users, having seen first hand the mental toll that physical illness can take.
“After open heart surgery, I had my life back for eight years… then it was taken from me again. Every day it’s a battle from a physical perspective and an emotional perspective. Mental pain is physical pain, you can’t have one without the other,” he says.
“There’s a lot out there purely for mental health support, but people with physical health issues don’t always fall into this bucket… and yet the fact that their physical health is bad is affecting their mental health. That’s why we built SelfieHealth to make sure those people have a place to connect with others in a meaningful way.”
Reducing hospital readmission rates
Similarly to a dating app – but a little more sophisticated – users of SelfiHealth answer a series of questions about themselves and the algorithm then matches them with someone whose experiences reflect their own. They then have the option to connect with them and chat.
Currently in North America, with plans to expand into Europe, the company has also established partnerships with non-profit organisations including the American Heart Association, Mended Hearts and Global Lyme Alliance, to provide trusted resources and live community events to members. And those who have overcome health battles can sign up as mentors to support others, because as Zach says, a life-changing diagnosis is something that stays with you.
The app remains free for patients, with its business model targeting hospitals and healthcare providers who offer patients access to the app on discharge, with the aim of reducing readmission rates and improving overall patient experience.
“Due to the Affordable Care Act, and [move towards] value-based care, providers are starting to realise that their services don’t stop inside the four walls of the hospital.They are starting to look for ways to engage patients,” says Zach.
“What we’ve seen so far is overwhelming, with 90 per cent of our members reporting that they’re more likely to use Selfie Health compared to traditional online platforms.
“We’re showing that if we can get patients using this app at the point of discharge, they’re more likely to have a better experience associated with that hospital and are less likely to be readmitted.”
Putting patients front and centre
In the post-Covid era with chronic disease on the rise, healthcare is changing and Zach believes the future involves patients being put front and centre, as active participants in their care.
“If you look at all our tools in healthcare, they have traditionally been created by physicians. We think what lies ahead is putting patients first,” he says.
“The patient is everything, and we never lose sight of that and who we’re building this for.”
Zach may be yet to find the person who understands exactly what he’s going through, but thanks to SelfiHealth, he allowed so many others to find theirs. In an industry always focused on the next innovation, it offers up a solution based on our most basic human desires.
“There’s a lot of fluff out there in the digital health world,” adds Zach.
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