“Congratulations, your cancer is in remission!”
It’s the best news of your life. You exhale, pushing out of your lungs twelve months’ worth of waiting rooms and sleepless nights and painful treatments. Then the oncologist says, “We’ll see you in six months to discuss your scans.”
You’re taken aback. Six months? For the last year you’d had near-constant medical care. You talked to your care team almost daily. This was your medical family, and now they’re sending you home to fend for yourself. What if the cancer comes back? What if you can’t sleep for fear of a relapse? You might be in remission, but you still feel like a cancer patient, and you have questions!
This is an incredibly common scenario. When a cancer patient is told they’re in remission, they’re thrown back into the world of self-managed health. Suddenly they’re on their own in figuring out their diet, understanding symptoms, and knowing when to call their doctor. The patient might buy a wearable to track their health but not understand how the metrics pertain to their disease. They might join an online forum for cancer survivors but not have confidence that the information on the feed is reliable.
At the end of the day, the daily health needs of cancer patients are incredibly unique and the healthcare system isn’t set up to meet those needs unless the patient is in the throes of treatment or experiencing an emergency. There aren’t nearly enough oncologists in the world, and those we do have are mostly generalists, not specialists. And the challenge is only getting bigger. Ironically, the better we get at treating cancer the more patients there will be who are living with cancer in remission.
Cancer patients need digital tools that take into account their unique conditions and personal biometrics. They need holistic care between doctor visits. They also need educational material that’s clinically validated and written so anyone can understand. Enter Athelo Health.
For Jessica Thurmond, this story starts when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. She was a descendant of the Wahpeton Oyate Sioux tribe out of South Dakota and her options for dependable sources of information and healthcare were limited.
“She came from a disadvantaged background,” says Thurmond. “I saw firsthand at that time how a lack of education, support, and trusted resources negatively impacted her patient journey.”
She passed less than a year after her diagnosis, at the age of 39. That experience has driven Thurmond ever since. It inspired her to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University where her research focused on the intersection of neuroscience and translational health before moving into the clinical trial market for a decade, always looking for ways to build health equity and health literacy into her work. Eventually Thurmond made her way into the oncology space through her research in glioblastoma and has been working in cancer care ever since.
During her time at a clinical research organization (CRO), Jessica met Monica Schmiede and found a kindred spirit. Monica’s grandmother passed away from cancer when Monica was a teenager. Although access to care was not an issue, Monica and her family resorted to filtering through news and journal articles for clues on how to improve her grandmother’s quality of life at home outside of the clinical setting. Decades later, this paradigm persists today. While Jessica specialized in clinical operations and development, Monica, who’d gone to business school at the London School of Economics, worked in business intelligence and strategy. Both were passionate about using new digital tools and platforms to improve care and open up access for cancer patients.
In 2021 the two made the leap, starting a company aimed at making clinical trials more accessible to cancer patients. But then they realized that if their goal was to help as many people as possible, they needed to think even bigger than clinical trials. They realized that a growing challenge in the cancer market was the availability of holistic care for cancer patients in both treatment and remission, so they set their sights on the field of “supportive cancer care.”
“There’s no shortage of investment in cancer treatments,” says Schmiede. “Oncology is by far the largest area of investment in drug development, attracting over a third of all pharma investment and ongoing clinical studies. Despite this, we still see limited advancements fundamentally improving the patient experience, which is still very fragmented.”
Before they wrote a single line of code, the two conducted more than a hundred interviews with experts, key opinion leaders in the industry, and patients in order to understand the pain points. They discovered that while the oncology market was still new to the application of wearables and remote monitors, the COVID-19 pandemic was speeding up adoption of digital health and paving the way for their idea.
“We’re huge advocates of wearable devices for health optimization, and we’re big fans of accessibility,” says Thurmond. “We believe everyone should have access to high-quality, integrated care. And you shouldn’t have to go to medical school to understand your pathway.”
And so, with binders full of interview data, the two set about building a digital health platform that supported cancer patients — starting with breast and gynecologic cancers — in a holistic, supportive way.
Athelo Health (whose name is meant to conjure the image of a fictionalized Greek goddess) is a platform deployed through a patient’s medical provider. The oncologist, wanting to provide a patient with wrap-around care between visits, can prescribe the Athelo platform just as they would direct them towards physical therapy or to a counselor.
Athelo gets to know the patient through an onboarding questionnaire that covers medical basics and also digs into a range of lifestyle details and desires. It might ask them about their sense of spirituality, diet preferences, or about their living situation, all in the name of providing more contextual, holistic care down the road.
Once Athelo has a deeper understanding of the health history and lifestyle of the patient, it opens them up to a community of resources, becoming a daily digital companion.
Athelo connects with a range of wearables, from Fitbits to Apple Watches, and tracks health data in the background. Patients are prompted to review their biometrics, and then given information to help them understand what the numbers mean given their particular type of cancer. What is heart rate variability? Why does it matter? How should I expect my numbers to look if I’m on an oral therapy vs. chemotherapy? If the patient didn’t sleep well, Athelo might offer some guided meditations or stretching routines to try to alleviate stress before bed and track if that helps sleep over the following nights. The name of the game is targeted, contextual health guidance and educational resources that anyone can understand.
Athelo also connects patients with a peer community for greater human connection and support. This takes the form of moderated discussions around topics like nutrition, financial concerns, or symptom management.
Consider the patient on the platform who has a new rash and is concerned it’s related to their cancer or treatment. The platform identifies that the patient is on immunotherapy and that rash is a common side effect of that therapy. The app can help them understand that the rash is common while also offering to loop in their caregiver. In this case, time is of the essence — sometimes patients quit their therapy because they have side effects that last too long. The app suggests alternate ways that the patient can deal with the rash, then informs the patient there is a group of patients on the app who are on immunotherapy and dealing with similar issues. Would they like to connect?
For Athelo’s co-founders, the platform isn’t about re-inventing the wheel, at least at first. They look up to tech-savvy platforms that have provided holistic care, like Livongo and Omada. But Athelo offers a chance to do this important work in the cancer market, starting with breast cancer and then growing to the rest of oncology. Treating cancer and staying healthy during remission is a unique journey and requires nuanced care. Athelo is taking the best digital tools available and targeting them specifically at this market.
Athelo Health is a triple-threat startup, addressing challenges in cancer, access, and cost, all at the same time. Obviously, they’re tackling the challenges of cancer care, helping cancer patients live longer and thrive during recovery. By connecting patients to resources and supportive communities, Athelo is able to help keep patients on therapy longer and respond to problems faster. These tools save lives.
But Athelo is also addressing issues of access. The vast majority of people suffering from cancer don’t live within driving distance of an oncologist who specializes in that particular type of cancer. Most community oncologists don’t have the luxury of specializing and rarely have the bandwidth to provide supportive care. They focus, and rightly so, on medical treatments, but there’s little time left to talk about areas like sleep and diet. Telemedicine tools designed for cancer care can open up that market, making high-quality care available in every region and at every education level.
Athelo is also designed to reduce the cost of care by cutting down on unnecessary hospitalizations and doctor’s visits. They’re going to accomplish that by empowering patients with information and support when they need it most. This aspect of the business will be essential as the healthcare industry moves towards more value-based business models.
“In this new era of value-based care there are so many elements of patient care that payers are having to think about for the first time,” says Thurmond. “Mental health, for instance, has been grossly undervalued. But it’s pretty basic. Your body can only respond to a drug if it’s operating at its best. The burden of stress has a serious impact on drug efficacy.”
We’re proud to back the Athelo Health team as they bring the best of digital health to the world of supportive cancer care. This is a startup that doesn’t just pay lip service to the idea of patient-centricity and health equity. It’s clearly in their DNA and we know that their focus on accessibility will guide their decisions as they build and scale the company.
Join us in welcoming Jessica Thurmond, Monica Schmiede, and the Athelo Health team to StartUp Health.
Learn more and connect with the Athelo Health team.
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