It's one of the long-standing conundrums for family doctors: When the exam is over, how do you ensure your patients eat right, get enough exercise and take their medicine?
Local technology entrepreneurs Jock Putney and Jeff Thompson believe they have an answer — a hyperlocal, demographic-specific patient engagement algorithm called WellFX.
That's tech-talk for a social media platform that encourages patients to stay on the right track toward a healthier life. Think Facebook for patients who share the same health condition, whether it's diabetes, obesity or heart disease.
But this is no social network clogged with status updates about cute pets and bad weather. WellFX, a Petaluma-based company, offers an online environment that is chock-full of features, such as video-based exercise programs, virtual patient group visits and patient-specific health information.
The platform allows patients to interact with one another online in a secure environment that complies with privacy rules established under HIPAA, short for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
At its core, the online service is a way of engaging patients and getting them to change their behavior and lifestyle, WellFX co-founder Jock Putney said. That becomes imperative when considering the cost of skyrocketing rates of diabetes in the United States, he said.
"If we want to turn this around, the way to do that is socially," Putney said. "The only way to lower health care costs is to keep people healthy."
Putney said the online service is geared toward health care providers, such as community health centers, employers, primary care physician groups and large integrated health care providers such as Kaiser Permanente.
Its early adopters include the West County Health Centers in Sonoma County and Columbia Valley Community Health Center, in Wenatchee, Wash.
At West County Health Centers, the platform is being used among staff, but eventually the group hopes to roll out the service for patients.
"It's like a Facebook but just centered around health and wellness and your goals for health," said Jennifer Neeley, a spokeswoman for the health centers.
But its features put it in a different class of social media than Facebook, which also has health care-related groups, Neeley said.
"There are a lot of groups like that on Facebook, but they don't have health care professionals that are involved in those groups," she said.
Jason Cunningham, West County Health Centers' medical director, said one of the goals is to have patients engage as peers working toward healthier behavior. Often, that's more effective than physicians lecturing patients, he said.
Dr. Malcolm Butler, medical director of Columbia Valley Community Health, said platforms like WellFX could ultimately become something of a relief valve for primary care physicians, who face a growing number of insured patients as a result of the federal Affordable Care Act.
"I think the tool has the potential to amplify the impact of a single primary care provider," Butler said, adding that patient group visits become more efficient in cyberspace.
"You've leveraged the power of social interactions," he said. "It's almost like a group visit without walls."