Treatspace works to simplify medical connections

Offers physician-patient, data channels

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The convergence of social media and federal law has helped launch an Oakland startup that has a simple mission — make it as easy as a Facebook update for patients and physicians to connect.

That’s not as simple as it sounds.

Treatspace, which started at Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus program, has developed what CEO and founder Rick Cancelliere calls “clinical social software” that can securely link patients to their doctors and their own medical records.

The privately held firm, currently with 10 employees, offers a three-pronged Web-based approach that not only can connect patients to their doctors, but connects referring doctors to specialists, and doctors to other doctors for collaborative and educational purposes.

It works like this: Instead of patients having to look up information on a physician’s website, Treatspace opens secure, two-way channels for physician and patient, or physician and physician, to exchange information via their home computer or mobile device.

In launching the company, Treatspace recognized how complicated it has become to make those connections.

Under the federal Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009, physician practices are being pushed to adopt electronic medical records and communicate with patients online. Beginning next year, those who do not comply face reduced Medicare reimbursements.

At the same time, health care workers must be mindful of complying with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which sets strict standards for guarding patients’ medical information.

Navigating those two laws can be tricky.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a $4.8 million settlement with New York and Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University following a data breach that disclosed medical status, vital signs, medications and lab results of 6,800 patients.

According to the federal government, the breach occurred when a physician tried to deactivate his personal server that contained the patient information. Because there were inadequate safeguards, the records became accessible through Internet search engines.

Those are the kinds of stories that can keep physicians up late at night, wondering how and whether they should respond to a patient email over an unsecured Internet connection.

For small, independent practices, “It is certainly frustrating,” said Mr. Cancelliere, “and this is one of the many reasons why they are getting usurped by health systems. They give up. They don’t have the funds to hire a vice president of technology.”

Then there is the “Wild West” culture of the Internet, where a single negative comment from 15 years earlier can attach itself to a physician forever.

“We have these current online services that grade physicians, but I find them to be rather inflammatory because they’re anonymous and there’s no accountability so they can write anything they want, whether it’s true or not,” said ophthalmologist Charles Kent with the private Everett & Hurite ophthalmic group.

“As a physician, if you try to respond to these things, it seems unprofessional.”

Treatspace can’t eliminate those remarks but it has made sure Dr. Kent’s own website has prominent placement if someone Googles his name, which he noted has the added benefit of pushing down sites that contain factual errors such as his specialization and his office location, as well as what he considers unfair complaints.

“People are only too happy to criticize things,” said Dr. Kent, but rarely are they moved “to go online and say, ‘We had a really great experience.’ ”

Dr. Kent has added a “pulsing” feature offered by Treatspace, which allows him to send short tweetlike general messages to patients to, for example, tell them about an upcoming sale on prescription sunglasses or to alert them about a particularly harsh allergy season.

The goal is to keep patients engaged and perhaps attract new patients.

Beyond that, Dr. Kent is cautious about adding other features such as online access for patients to their medical records. His patients range from young adults to post-retirees. “They all use the Internet differently,” he said. “It’s hard to know what one person would find offensive and another would be perfectly fine with.”

The independent Genesis Medical group of 10 primary care physicians, on the other hand, is embracing much of what Treatspace has to offer — the search engine-prominent website, of course, but also pulsing short messages, blogging, providing access to a portal to make appointments or request a prescription refill. Later this summer, they also plan to offer online patient access to an individual’s own medical records using Treatspace’s secure software.

“We need to make health care information more accessible to our patients,” said Mark Kissinger, executive director for the Ross-based Genesis Medical. “Treatspace has created an environment for us to be able to get that information out to our patients in a recognizable and secure way.”

Mr. Kissinger strongly supports what he sees as Mr. Cancelliere’s “vision of an online health care community” in which patients one day will be able to make FaceTime video calls to their doctor’s office and insurers will willingly reimburse the consult “for half what it costs to get into a physician’s office now.”

He also sees a communitywide benefit. As the practice collects more information, he said, they should be able to gather cost and quality data on specialists. “We need to know who the specialists are who want to work with us, who want to hold down costs, maintain quality and be efficient.”

Treatspace’s client roster includes about 100 providers in about a dozen, mostly local, practices. The company is looking to branch out into Ohio and parts of New York later this year. Mr. Cancelliere will not disclose the cost for Treatspace’s services, but he said a one-year subscription comes in at “less than a cup of coffee” for each physician or health worker.

Mr. Kissinger thinks the price is worth it, especially considering the more traditional — and inherently inefficient — process for making appointments and arranging referrals.

“It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to deal with phones and faxes,” he said, “and it takes a lot of people to do that.”

Steve Twedt: or 412-263-1963.

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