Interview: Zume Life CEO Rajiv Mehta

By: Brian Dolan | Feb 1, 2009        

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zume-deviceZume Life is a San Jose start-up founded in 2006 that has developed its own dedicated device that allows those with chronic illnesses, their caretakers, or anyone with a complex regimen to keep track of and manage their own care. Last week mobihealthnews caught up with Zume Life’s CEO Rajiv Mehta to discuss where primary caregivers fit into Zume Life’s product, why “bucketized” approaches to mHealth applications won’t work and why he’s tired of hearing about how consumers will “never” pay for eHealth services.

mobihealthnews: Zume Life has created a device, called the Zuri, that helps patients keep track of their medications, daily habits, exercise and any other activity. While there is an option to send the collected data to a website accessible by other interested parties, like caregivers, the solution seems mostly consumer-oriented. So, how do the caregivers fit into the Zume Life equation?

Mehta: One of the key things to think about in terms of caregivers–first and foremost, for at least 99 percent of our lives, the primary caregiver is you. There is no way around it. Nobody else has much to say about what you eat, whether you sleep and so on. Past that, there’s a tiny circle of friends and family who are really your next level of caregivers and are really involved more than anybody else–it could be your spouse, your sister, you best friend. Yes, of course, there are the health professionals: whether dietitians, physicians or nurses–but just they are involved rarely–usually when things go wrong at an annual checkup. Keeping that in mind, the way caregivers are involved is through this data that is collected by the Zuri and presented on the Web. With the user’s permission, other people can view that individual’s health and over time start setting up automatic alerts… When you go to the doctor with some minor problem, it’s very difficult to diagnose and treat because they just don’t have the level of data to treat you. So at least with this solution, there is the possibility that they could get that useful data.

(Read on for more from Mehta and a ten minute clip that shows Zume Life in action…)

mobihealthnews: Why is mobile an attractive strategy for Zume Life?

Mehta: I think [mobile is an attractive strategy] because of the nature of the user’s problem. You have to be with the user to help them. For example, with reminders, it really doesn’t do us much good if a person needs to remember to go to their PC and find that piece of information there: “Oh, at this moment I’m suppose to take two doses of aspirin.” We live our lives everywhere and so for the day-to-day and hour-to-hour activities of recording your health, it has to be at your fingertips. It doesn’t in a sense preclude a Web-based application at all, especially since some of our handhelds are getting more capable of going directly to the Web. The point is simply that the information has to be at the fingertips. And so, it’s a “mobile” device in the sense that it has to be with you–in today’s world, that means it has to be some sort of little device we are pursuing both approaches: specialized devices as well as smartphone applications because different users will have different desires in terms of how they want this application to exist for them.

mobihealthnews: Describe your ideal users.

Mehta: If all you have to do is take one vitamin a day, then you don’t need this solution. If you have one or several chronic illnesses that require a complex regimen of multiple medications throughout the day and a specific diet then this solution is very important to you. The other important point is that [Zume Life] is for individuals who want to improve their health. It isn’t something you can force on anyone. There are some illnesses that lend themselves to this more than others–for example, diabetes is by its nature more complex and more all-encompassing in you day to day life then perhaps hypertension. With diabetes you might be measuring yourself multiple times per day; you might be taking multiple doses of insulin a day and being more careful about your diet. Whereas with hypertension you might be able to get away with just taking a pill in the morning and another in the evening and cutting some salt out of your diet. Simply put, some conditions are more complex than others and therefore require more care. Unfortunately today, people in their 20s and 30s often have quite complex health issues. It’s not just a problem of the elderly, so it goes across the gamut.zume-portal-1

mobihealthnews: Since it goes across the gamut, would either the dedicated device or the iPhone app be appropriate for potential users who are not tech-savvy?

Mehta: The non-tech-savvy group would be better off with the dedicated device since its interface is simpler than a Blackberry or iPhone or smartphone like that.

mobihealthnews: Do you have applications ready forthe  iPhone, Blackberry or any of the other emerging platforms?

Mehta: We currently have a closed beta version of an iPhone app. That said, there is no generalized app for all cell phones, but we plan to watch and learn and see which of these emerging mobile platforms become popular. It really is important that we ensure these applications are designed well so people can use them. Keep coming back to the point; Taking your pill is not hard. Eating your broccoli is not hard. Taking ten minutes to go for a walk isn’t hard. It’s fitting them into a very busy day. The activity needs to be trivial. A great deal of care needs to go into the design of the whole UI to make it trivial.

mobihealthnews: How do you go about marketing Zuris and the other applications to potential users?

Mehta: There are at least three routes. One, is the online community… There are many situations and illnesses that cause people to have very similar needs. While the specifics of the medication may be different, the tasks are basically the same. For so many different kinds of groups like this, there are quite a wide variety of forums, discussion groups, and so on online. People are discussing what works for them with others. That is a very good vehicle for marketing for us. People there are hungry for solutions and we’re happy to provide them.

There are also institutional partners but these by their very nature tend to go more slowly than the early adoption by early consumers, but there’s a number of institutions that would benefit tremendously from better health. Take employers, for whom productivity issues, wellness costs, etc. are quite burdensome and they are very aggressively looking for solutions to that. Similarly, all of the disease management programs and wellness programs that help people with chronic illness, smoking cessation, weight loss, you name it–all of which would benefit from this solution. You also have provider side situations like pregnancies–very difficult pregnancies–or post-operation recovery. Then there is Pharma and Medtech–the area of clinical trials is so crucial to their business–this solution could benefit them as well. For Pharma, the more adherent we are in general–meaning, the more meds we use–directly boils down to revenue for them.

Finally, the media is not to be overlooked. For a variety of reasons, health is a hot topic–the notion of chronic illness and how we are being overwhelmed by that is creating a lot of coverage. Within that context the fact that we have a very positive message to bring really really plays well. There are tons of negative messages out there–how expensive things are how every year we seem to get fatter–and we’re coming along with a very powerful message of individual empowerment.

mobihealthnews: What is Zume Life doing that’s unique? What is your value-add that other platforms don’t provide?

Mehta: Every other patient-focused, consumer-focused health solutions we have come across–whether it’s a telehealth solution from HealthHero, Philips or websites like PatientsLikeMe or FitDay.com or other mobile phone solutions–they almost always come from the perspective of the healthcare industry. So these solutions are very often bucketized. Their solutions become pegged as offerings for people with diabetes or people with ALS and so forth. If you are a diabetic, yes, you should be keeping track of your glucose, yes, you should be keeping track of your insulin and carb counting and so forth. Most of our competitors just create a solution for that. We think that this just doesn’t work for us as individuals because even in the simplest cases we have multiple things to deal with. For example, two-thirds of diabetics have another chronic illness in addition to diabetes. Twenty-five percent of diabetics have two or more conditions in addition to diabetes. These “bucketized” approaches end up being not particularly useful to us as individuals. It doesn’t help us to have four solutions to manage our health–we need one solution to manage our health.

mobihealthnews: What needs to change in the coming year to help advance mHealth?

Mehta: There are a few cultural perceptions that really need to change for us to really make headway on this. One that you hear over and over again when you show consumer oriented health applications to almost anyone is: “Consumers Don’t Care about their health, how are you going to be able to get them to do anything?” Parallel to that is: “Consumers won’t pay for this.” This is a myth that’s just got to be busted. When we look at it that way–people don’t care about their health–it’s impossible to make any progress when you assume that the dog doesn’t want to eat the dog food. I think it’s un-motivating for the industry to go on about this and I also thing that it’s fundamentally untrue. That’s a really key social perception that needs to change for anything to really happen. We all do pay for health–we pay $100B in the U.S. each year alone on things we think are good for our health. We just object to people telling us what to spend on. If this is meant to help me, then make it good enough so that I want to pay for it. Don’t tell me advertisers or the insurance companies will pay for it. Anyway, I’m off my soapbox.