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Disease-Management Firms See Internet as Rx for Growth

Medicine: Web sites are helping the industry gain the attention of investors, patients and care professionals.

May 22, 2000|SYLVIA PAGAN WESTPHAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Corinne Pyle thought she would have to give up her golfing, gardening and active social life after congestive heart failure sent her to a hospital two years ago.

But the 95-year-old Laguna Woods resident is back to her firecracker self, keeping her condition in check by calling in her weight and blood pressure results weekly to LifeMasters Supported SelfCare Inc., a Newport Beach company that monitors her condition.

Some 3,000 miles away in Massachusetts, Al LaChance keeps his diabetes under control by checking his blood glucose levels. Instead of using the phone, he ships the information to LifeMasters by visiting the company's Web site.

"With the Internet, every time I log in I see my 30-day chart," he said. "Before, I was on again, off again" in checking vital signs.

Both Pyle and LaChance are success stories for companies such as LifeMasters that help patients manage their chronic illnesses.

Pyle is typical of the driving force behind such disease-management companies: Monitoring such patients saves trips to hospitals and makes the health-care system less costly. LaChance's zeal for the Internet denotes the promise of growth for the small industry. As a communications tool, a Web site helps keep both the chronically ill and their doctors well-informed.

LifeMasters is one of dozens of companies offering health-monitoring services over the Internet to parlay their electronic strategy into a more efficient system that health insurers and physicians will want to use.

Some companies, such as LifeMasters, have a Web site where patients can type in their vital signs, follow their progress through personalized health charts and chat with nurses online. Others, such as Health Hero Network Inc. and LifeChart.com Inc., both based in Mountain View, Calif., also provide patients with gadgets such as asthma meters that plug into telephone lines and automatically upload measurements onto the companies' Web sites.

However it is used, the Internet is helping bring the disease-management industry into modern times and attract a much-needed infusion of attention from investors, consumers and the health-care community.

"You see excitement picking up," said Daphne Psacharopoulos, a consultant with Boston Consulting Group who did an analysis of the industry in late 1999. "The Internet could create tremendous opportunities."

With chronic-disease patients accounting for about 70% of the $1 trillion spent annually on health care, insurers will increasingly turn to disease managers to control costs and improve care, a recent Credit Suisse First Boston study concluded.

While disease-management companies took in only $291 million last year, experts expect the amount to climb to more than $1 billion within five years as the Internet helps spur the industry.

Investors also find the appeal of the Net alluring. J.P. Morgan Capital and other investors recently put $14 million into Accordant Health Services Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., which set up a Web site to help patients monitor such devastating illnesses as lupus or Parkinson's.

Intel Corp. invested an undisclosed amount in LifeMasters after the company went online. Intel also agreed to supply some of the company's patients with home computers, and LifeMasters picked up three rounds of private funding.

$10 Million Revenue Expected This Year

Going online also has helped attract new business. At LifeMasters, for instance, new contracts for monitoring services boosted revenue 300% last year, Chief Executive Christobel E. Selecky said. The company expects more than $10 million in revenue this year, she said.

Companies are banking on customers like LaChance, who said he is constantly on the Internet and prefers to use the Web to record his vital signs. He types in his blood sugar levels three times a day, either from home or work. "It gives me flexibility," LaChance said of the Web-based program.

The computer and the Internet, as gadgets go, also are powerful tools for keeping patients motivated, said Al Lewis, executive director of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium, which represents health plans and employers. The novelty of the Net is enticing patients to develop a routine.

LaChance, for instance, likes to check his progress chart, which he can access with a password on a customized Web page. Seeing how his blood levels are changing day by day has helped him realize the importance of diet and taking prescriptions regularly to keep the disease under control, he said.

"If I see a low [value], I think, 'Have I been eating properly?,' " he said.

Even Pyle, who knows next to nothing about the Internet, is curious enough about LifeMasters' Web program that she has signed up for computer lessons.

For now, Pyle keeps her heart condition under control by diligently taking her blood pressure, weight and pulse measurements and sending them to the LifeMasters database by punching in numbers on her touch-tone telephone.

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