By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
According to a study by Tufts University in 2014, 60-to-80 percent of the cost of any new drug or treatment goes to clinical trials, and most of that is money is channeled into luring in, then weeding out patients to test the drug. They have to have the exact combination of age, health status, family history and dozens of other factors to make the clinical trials valid. That’s what ePatientFinder, a startup in Austin, was created to deal with.The ePatientFinder platform data mines physicians’ and hospitals’ medical records looking for keywords that would mark a patient as a good candidate for a phase III trial—the kind where people actually benefit from the treatment, rather than just being used to measure things like toxicity. If candidates are found, their primary physicians, who are signed up with ePatientFinder, contact the patients to tell them of the opportunity and further screen them to determine if they are, in fact, a good fit.
“I come from an academic institution where I had colleagues or friends doing research all the time, looking for patients to enroll in studies,” said Dr. Gary Goff, an internist in Dallas who is signed up with ePatientFinder. “There was no efficiency in it. It was like ‘Hey buddy, so and so, you have that disease. Would you be interested in talking to them? That was the mechanism of patient referrals– posters on a tripod all over campus. This is light years ahead of anything that’s been done before.”
The pharmaceutical companies pay ePatientFinder as well as the trial participants and doctors who screen and consult with patients. But it’s a lot more streamlined than trying to fish from the general population.
“If you look at areas like banking and communication it’s been a lot easier to automate because you’re dealing with less information,” said Tom Dorsett, ePatientFinder CEO and co-founder. Dorsett founded NuScribe, the market’s first health information exchange, in 1991 and sold it for $9 million. Dorsett used some of the proceeds of that sale to launch ePatientFinder.
ePatientFinder works with most of the technologies healthcare practices use to manage patient records. And, Dorsett said, it’s the only one that involves the primary care physician rather than appealing directly to the patients. While he said the company is focused on chronic illnesses right now, such as diabetes, which are the subject of a lot of research, Dr. Goff suggested that the platform’s data mining capabilities has other uses, such as monitoring preventive health measures for various patients with similar profiles.
Dorsett, who has had several jobs in medical IT consulting and management since the sale of his company, had been looking for another opportunity with friend and former business partner Tom Tauzin of Tauzin Consultants in Washington, D.C.. Tauzin’s father, and business partner, a former Congressman from Louisiana, also served as president of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical association. They had discussed an idea Dorsett had years ago when his daughter was born with a large birthmark and was interested in what kinds of treatments were available. The idea for a clinical trial clearinghouse through primary physicians was initially created then.
“What we needed was a very large VHR (Virtual Health Record Clinical Portal) to access PHI (patient health information) efficiently,” Tauzin said. “We shelved it for some time…until the data showed that there was enough adoption that we could make a go of it from an investor standpoint…. Our model is solving big problems not that, necessarily, are unsolved but that could just be so onerous …that there’s a real cost barrier and hindrance to the industry.”
The cost of bringing treatments to market was one such problem. Tauzin and Dorsett had to consult with numerous attorneys and other consultants to ensure that the platform they were proposing was legal and met with regulatory restrictions such as patient privacy laws. Tauzin’s company is also launching an accelerator Impact Acceleration, a venture building incubator/accelerator focused on energy, healthcare, telecommunications and technology.
In addition to the exorbitant cost of finding patients, Dorsett said, “Most patients are completely unaware that these trials are going on. There’s a miniscule part of the population who will go out and look for clinical trials, and there are so many good treatments out there for diabetes, interesting things happening in Alzheimer’s, all the usual suspects drive the cost up in healthcare….” There are, he said some 17-odd-thousand trials running at any given point and they can be found at Clinicaltrials.gov. But ePatientFinder is able to sort out those that are showing the most promise in different therapeutic areas.
“Eighty six percent of clinical trials run behind because they’re looking for a diabetic, with another condition and 30 different data points,” he said. Researchers may ask a friend who is a physician if they can send patients over, but the physician, who is already busy, has no way of identifying the best patients other than combing through records. “What we do is automate all that so that community physicians can refer patients to clinical trials in their own community conducted by other physicians they know and trust in the community. Otherwise those treatments are completely inaccessible to those patients. We make it exist for them.”