At the “Apple Store of Doctor’s Offices,” Preventive Care Is High Tech. Is it Worth $150 a Month?
What if going to the doctor's office could be … nice?
If you didn't have to wait for your appointment, but were ushered right in; if your medical data was all collated and easily searchable on an iPhone app; if a remote scribe took notes while you spoke with your doctor so you could make eye contact with them; if your doctor didn't seem horribly rushed.
Would you go to the doctor to get help staying healthy, rather than just to stop being sick?
Would that change the way you thought about your health? Would you go to the doctor to get help staying healthy, rather than just to stop being sick? And would that, in the long run, be much better for you?
Those are the animating questions for Forward, a healthcare startup devoted to preventive care. Led by founder Adrian Aoun, formerly of Google/Sidewalk labs, Forward opened its first office in San Francisco in 2016 and has since expanded to Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, and Washington, D.C., with a San Diego location opening soon.
It's been described as the "Apple Store of doctor's offices," which in some ways is a reaction to Forward's vibe: Patients have described the offices as having blonde wood, minimalist design, sparkling water on tap — and lots of high-tech gadgets, like the full-body scanner that replaces the standard scale and stethoscope.
The interior of a Forward office.
The more crucial difference, though, is its model of care. Forward doesn't take insurance. Instead, patients, or "members," pay a flat $149 per month, along the lines of a subscription service like Netflix or a gym membership. That fee covers visits, messaging with medical staff through the Forward app, the use of a wearable (like a Fitbit or a sleep tracker) if the physician recommends it, plus any bloodwork or diagnostic tests run in the on-site labs. (The company declined to disclose how many people have signed up for memberships.)
Predictability is Forward's other significant, distinguishing feature: No surprise co-pays, or extra charges showing up on a billing statement months later. Everything is wrapped up in the $149 membership fee, unless the physician recommends visiting an outside specialist.
That caveat isn't a small one. It's important to note that Forward is in no way meant to replace standard health insurance. The service is strictly focused on preventive care, so it wouldn't be much use in case of an emergency; it's meant to help people, as far as is possible, avoid that emergency at all.
Ani Okkasian's family recently went through such an emergency. Her 62-year-old father, an active and seemingly healthy man living with diabetes, had been feeling unwell for a while, but struggled to receive constructive follow-up or tests from his doctor. It finally emerged that his liver was severely damaged, and he suffered a stroke — the risk of which can be elevated by liver disease. He seemed to deteriorate completely within mere weeks, Okkasian said, and in January he passed away.
"He was someone who'd go to the doctor regularly and listen to what they said and follow it," Okkasian said. "I shouldn't have had to bury my father at 62. I still believe to my core that his death could have been avoided if the primary care was adequate."
"I could tell that the people who designed [Forward] had lost someone to the legacy system; it was so streamlined and so much clearer."
Okkasian began researching, looking for a better alternative, and discovered Forward. Founder Aoun lost his grandfather to a heart attack; his brother's heart attack at age 31 was the impetus to start Forward.
"I could tell that that was the genesis," Okkasian said. "Having just lost someone, and having had to deal with different aspects of the healthcare industry — how complicated and convoluted that all is — I could tell that the people who designed [Forward] had lost someone to the legacy system; it was so streamlined and so much clearer."
So Who Is Forward For?
The Affordable Care Act mandates that evidence-based preventive care must be covered by insurers without any cost to the patient. Today, 30 million Americans are still living without health insurance; but for most of the population, cost shouldn't prevent access to standard, preventive care, says Benjamin Sommers, a physician and professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has studied the effect of the ACA on preventive care access.
For Okkasian and her family, it wasn't a lack of access to primary care that was at issue; it was the quality of that primary care. In 2019, that's probably true for a lot of people.
"How come all other industries have been disturbed except the medical industry?" Okkasian asked. "It's disturbing the most people. We're so advanced in so many ways, but when it comes to the healthcare system, we're not prioritizing the wellness of a person."
Is Forward the answer? Well, probably not for everyone. Its office are only in a handful of cities, and there are limits to how scalable it would be; it's unavoidable that the $149 per month charge restricts access for a lot of people. Those who have insurance through their employer might have a flexible spending account (FSA) that would cover some or all of the membership fee, and Forward has said that 15 percent of their early members came from underserved communities and were offered free plans; but for many others, that's just an unworkable extra cost.
Sommers also sounded a dubious note about a maximalist attitude toward data collection.
"Even though some patients may think that 'more is always better' — more testing, more screening, etc. — this isn't true," he said. "Some types of cancer screening, ovarian cancer screening for instance, are actually harmful or of no benefit, because studies have shown that they don't improve survival or health outcomes, but can lead to unnecessary testing, pain, false positives, anxiety, and other side effects.
"It's really great for people who are in good health, looking to make it better."
"I'm generally skeptical of efforts to charge people more to get 'extra testing' that isn't currently supported by the medical evidence," he added.
But relatively healthy people who want to take a more active approach to their health — or people who have frequent testing needs, like those using the HIV-prevention drug PrEP, and want to avoid co-pays — might benefit from the on-demand, low-friction experience that Forward offers.
"It's really great for people who are in good health, looking to make it better," Okkasian said. "Your experience is simplified to a point where you feel empowered, not scared."
Are You Having a Healthy Change of Heart? An HRV Sensor Can Tell You.
This episode is about a health metric you may not have heard of before: heart rate variability, or HRV. This refers to the small changes in the length of time between each of your heart beats.
Scientists have known about and studied HRV for a long time. In recent years, though, new monitors have come to market that can measure HRV accurately whenever you want.
Five months ago, I got interested in HRV as a more scientific approach to finding the lifestyle changes that work best for me as an individual. It's at the convergence of some important trends in health right now, such as health tech, precision health and the holistic approach in systems biology, which recognizes how interactions among different parts of the body are key to health.
But HRV is just one of many numbers worth paying attention to. For this episode of Making Sense of Science, I spoke with psychologist Dr. Leah Lagos; Dr. Jessilyn Dunn, assistant professor in biomedical engineering at Duke; and Jason Moore, the CEO of Spren and an app called Elite HRV. We talked about what HRV is, research on its benefits, how to measure it, whether it can be used to make improvements in health, and what researchers still need to learn about HRV.
*Talk to your doctor before trying anything discussed in this episode related to HRV and lifestyle changes to raise it.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
Spren - https://www.spren.com/
Elite HRV - https://elitehrv.com/
Jason Moore's Twitter - https://twitter.com/jasonmooreme?lang=en
Dr. Jessilyn Dunn's Twitter - https://twitter.com/drjessilyn?lang=en
Dr. Dunn's study on HRV, flu and common cold - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/f...
Dr. Leah Lagos - https://drleahlagos.com/
Dr. Lagos on Star Talk - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jC2Q10SonV8
Research on HRV and intermittent fasting - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33859841/
Research on HRV and Mediterranean diet - https://medicalxpress.com/news/2010-06-twin-medite...:~:text=Using%20data%20from%20the%20Emory,eating%20a%20Western%2Dtype%20diet
Devices for HRV biofeedback - https://elitehrv.com/heart-variability-monitors-an...
Benefits of HRV biofeedback - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32385728/
HRV and cognitive performance - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins...
HRV and emotional regulation - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36030986/
Fortune article on HRV - https://fortune.com/well/2022/12/26/heart-rate-var...
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
A skin patch to treat peanut allergies teaches the body to tolerate the nuts
Ever since he was a baby, Sharon Wong’s son Brandon suffered from rashes, prolonged respiratory issues and vomiting. In 2006, as a young child, he was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy.
"My son had a history of reacting to traces of peanuts in the air or in food,” says Wong, a food allergy advocate who runs a blog focusing on nut free recipes, cooking techniques and food allergy awareness. “Any participation in school activities, social events, or travel with his peanut allergy required a lot of preparation.”
Peanut allergies affect around a million children in the U.S. Most never outgrow the condition. The problem occurs when the immune system mistakenly views the proteins in peanuts as a threat and releases chemicals to counteract it. This can lead to digestive problems, hives and shortness of breath. For some, like Wong’s son, even exposure to trace amounts of peanuts could be life threatening. They go into anaphylactic shock and need to take a shot of adrenaline as soon as possible.
Typically, people with peanut allergies try to completely avoid them and carry an adrenaline autoinjector like an EpiPen in case of emergencies. This constant vigilance is very stressful, particularly for parents with young children.
“The search for a peanut allergy ‘cure’ has been a vigorous one,” says Claudia Gray, a pediatrician and allergist at Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The closest thing to a solution so far, she says, is the process of desensitization, which exposes the patient to gradually increasing doses of peanut allergen to build up a tolerance. The most common type of desensitization is oral immunotherapy, where patients ingest small quantities of peanut powder. It has been effective but there is a risk of anaphylaxis since it involves swallowing the allergen.
"By the end of the trial, my son tolerated approximately 1.5 peanuts," Sharon Wong says.
DBV Technologies, a company based in Montrouge, France has created a skin patch to address this problem. The Viaskin Patch contains a much lower amount of peanut allergen than oral immunotherapy and delivers it through the skin to slowly increase tolerance. This decreases the risk of anaphylaxis.
Wong heard about the peanut patch and wanted her son to take part in an early phase 2 trial for 4-to-11-year-olds.
“We felt that participating in DBV’s peanut patch trial would give him the best chance at desensitization or at least increase his tolerance from a speck of peanut to a peanut,” Wong says. “The daily routine was quite simple, remove the old patch and then apply a new one. By the end of the trial, he tolerated approximately 1.5 peanuts.”
How it works
For DBV Technologies, it all began when pediatric gastroenterologist Pierre-Henri Benhamou teamed up with fellow professor of gastroenterology Christopher Dupont and his brother, engineer Bertrand Dupont. Together they created a more effective skin patch to detect when babies have allergies to cow's milk. Then they realized that the patch could actually be used to treat allergies by promoting tolerance. They decided to focus on peanut allergies first as the more dangerous.
The Viaskin patch utilizes the fact that the skin can promote tolerance to external stimuli. The skin is the body’s first defense. Controlling the extent of the immune response is crucial for the skin. So it has defense mechanisms against external stimuli and can promote tolerance.
The patch consists of an adhesive foam ring with a plastic film on top. A small amount of peanut protein is placed in the center. The adhesive ring is attached to the back of the patient's body. The peanut protein sits above the skin but does not directly touch it. As the patient sweats, water droplets on the inside of the film dissolve the peanut protein, which is then absorbed into the skin.
The peanut protein is then captured by skin cells called Langerhans cells. They play an important role in getting the immune system to tolerate certain external stimuli. Langerhans cells take the peanut protein to lymph nodes which activate T regulatory cells. T regulatory cells suppress the allergic response.
A different patch is applied to the skin every day to increase tolerance. It’s both easy to use and convenient.
“The DBV approach uses much smaller amounts than oral immunotherapy and works through the skin significantly reducing the risk of allergic reactions,” says Edwin H. Kim, the division chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the University of North Carolina, U.S., and one of the principal investigators of Viaskin’s clinical trials. “By not going through the mouth, the patch also avoids the taste and texture issues. Finally, the ability to apply a patch and immediately go about your day may be very attractive to very busy patients and families.”
Brandon Wong displaying origami figures he folded at an Origami Convention in 2022
Results from DBV's phase 3 trial in children ages 1 to 3 show its potential. For a positive result, patients who could not tolerate 10 milligrams or less of peanut protein had to be able to manage 300 mg or more after 12 months. Toddlers who could already tolerate more than 10 mg needed to be able to manage 1000 mg or more. In the end, 67 percent of subjects using the Viaskin patch met the target as compared to 33 percent of patients taking the placebo dose.
“The Viaskin peanut patch has been studied in several clinical trials to date with promising results,” says Suzanne M. Barshow, assistant professor of medicine in allergy and asthma research at Stanford University School of Medicine in the U.S. “The data shows that it is safe and well-tolerated. Compared to oral immunotherapy, treatment with the patch results in fewer side effects but appears to be less effective in achieving desensitization.”
The primary reason the patch is less potent is that oral immunotherapy uses a larger amount of the allergen. Additionally, absorption of the peanut protein into the skin could be erratic.
Gray also highlights that there is some tradeoff between risk and efficacy.
“The peanut patch is an exciting advance but not as effective as the oral route,” Gray says. “For those patients who are very sensitive to orally ingested peanut in oral immunotherapy or have an aversion to oral peanut, it has a use. So, essentially, the form of immunotherapy will have to be tailored to each patient.” Having different forms such as the Viaskin patch which is applied to the skin or pills that patients can swallow or dissolve under the tongue is helpful.
The hope is that the patch’s efficacy will increase over time. The team is currently running a follow-up trial, where the same patients continue using the patch.
“It is a very important study to show whether the benefit achieved after 12 months on the patch stays stable or hopefully continues to grow with longer duration,” says Kim, who is an investigator in this follow-up trial.
"My son now attends university in Massachusetts, lives on-campus, and eats dorm food. He has so much more freedom," Wong says.
The team is further ahead in the phase 3 follow-up trial for 4-to-11-year-olds. The initial phase 3 trial was not as successful as the trial for kids between one and three. The patch enabled patients to tolerate more peanuts but there was not a significant enough difference compared to the placebo group to be definitive. The follow-up trial showed greater potency. It suggests that the longer patients are on the patch, the stronger its effects.
They’re also testing if making the patch bigger, changing the shape and extending the minimum time it’s worn can improve its benefits in a trial for a new group of 4-to-11 year-olds.
DBV Technologies is using the skin patch to treat cow’s milk allergies in children ages 1 to 17. They’re currently in phase 2 trials.
As for the peanut allergy trials in toddlers, the hope is to see more efficacy soon.
For Wong’s son who took part in the earlier phase 2 trial for 4-to-11-year-olds, the patch has transformed his life.
“My son continues to maintain his peanut tolerance and is not affected by peanut dust in the air or cross-contact,” Wong says. ”He attends university in Massachusetts, lives on-campus, and eats dorm food. He still carries an EpiPen but has so much more freedom than before his clinical trial. We will always be grateful.”