Patient empowerment helps improve cancer outcomes

Jessica Thurmond, founder, Athelo Health

The cancer treatment journey is a tough one. Jessica Thurmond witnessed this when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She saw firsthand how a lack of patient access to education and resources could be detrimental to health outcomes. This was the impetus behind her co-founding Athelo Health with Monica Schmiede and Marq Short.

Located in Louisville, KY, Athelo Health is an oncology focused, artificial intelligence (AI)-driven digital health platform intended to empower cancer patients with data. The company’s app guides patients through their treatment regimen with personalized, virtual coaching based on real-time biometrics. We spoke to Thurmond about the company.

Tell us how you got started with Athelo Health.

Thurmond: I’m not a medical doctor. I went to grad school for neuroscience at Vanderbilt. I moved into the oncology space via glioblastoma (brain tumor) research. I’ve worked in the oncology space for over 10 years now, from standard patient care to clinical trials. After Vanderbilt, I continued my education in AI and business strategy with MIT.

Why the interest in oncology tech?

Thurmond: I want to know how we can be more efficient with our processes and support patients by using technological innovation. But in terms of my personal story, my mom was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer back in 1999.

My mom came from a poor background, descending from the Wahpeton-Sioux tribe out of South Dakota. Because of lack of access to education and resources, she really struggled to know where to start with her treatment journey. Unfortunately—knowing what I do now—she didn’t take as aggressive of a path as I wish she had. She passed less than a year later at the age of 39.

What is Athelo focused on in its platform?

Thurmond: We’re actually starting with linear algorithms, because we want to train on our own data set. So, for us, we are a biometric-anchored, mobile platform designed to provide actionable evidence-based recommendations for how patients can improve their quality of life.

This can also decrease the healthcare system burden while lowering the cost of care. So ultimately, we integrate with just about every wearable device on the market currently, from Fitbit to Apple Watch. We use monitoring activity and heart rate variability to provide recommendations on elements like sleep, nutrition and pain management.

How does Athelo work for patients?

Thurmond: It’s designed with patients first, so it will offer standards like appointment reminders and integrate with your health records. Patients will have bidirectional communication through the application with care team access. What we’re most interested in though is helping patients understand their personal health data and offering them empirically based recommendations.

We also have a social component. Based on an algorithm, we match patients with each other according to what’s most important to them. Perhaps it’s spirituality, or maybe the financial burden of their care is really weighing on them.

Instead of just dumping people into forums, which is what you see a lot, we’re going to match them into small chat groups. These are anonymized, de-identified groups of women who are going through similar circumstances, to be able to have conversations about what their journey is like and support one another.

What are the next steps?

Thurmond: We’re moving into the beta phase now. We’re starting out with breast cancer specifically just to have a very narrow patient population. We’ll put 200 patients on the platform initially, including 100 patients that currently have breast cancer specifically and then 100 that are in survivorship (remission).

Survivorship is another area of cancer care, in which there is a huge gap. Cancer is no longer considered a terminal illness every time. It’s a chronic, manageable condition that people live with for a long time, and oftentimes don’t have a guide to bring them along that entire journey.

Would your services be covered by insurance?

Thurmond: We’re a business-to-business (B2B) company, so we’re targeting insurance company payers. However, we’re in the initial status, and just looking at accountable care organizations (ACOs) and risk providers. The payer sales cycle is pretty long. We’re starting off with groups that are a little bit more prone to take on new technology-based solutions.

We really want to make a play for CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] for coverage, because we believe that if you have the finances and live next to Vanderbilt, your quality of care is significantly higher. But when we look at socially vulnerable populations, those are the people who don’t have access to these types of tools and who really need it the most.

So you are planning to move your headquarters to Louisville?

Thurmond: We are looking at moving our headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky in early 2022. We’re a fairly remote organization to begin with, but I’m a big fan of the Louisville scene. We’ve been in some conversations with healthcare people there. You know, the entrepreneur scene in Louisville is just really fantastic. [The city]  is really interested in spurring on their entrepreneurs. In Louisville, people have been willing to make connections wherever they can. My business partner and I have both been amazed by just how open the community has been.

Jessica Thurmond has 10 years of clinical trial experience with cancer patients. She holds a masters in clinical neuroscience from Vanderbilt University.