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The startup behind a tool designed to save you a doctor's visit has partnered with Bill and Melinda Gates


bill gates melinda gates

  • A symptom-checking tool called Ada Health is launching a new partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • On Wednesday, the startup will begin working with the Gates Foundation to study how the tool could support healthcare workers in rural parts of the world.
  • Ada Health is already one of the most popular medical apps in over 130 countries.

Getting to the doctor when you're not feeling well is no easy task no matter where you live. But in many parts of the world, there are bigger problems than high costs and long wait times.

For roughly half the globe's population, basic healthcare is a luxury that's too expensive to get. So Ada Health, a tool that lets you type in your symptoms to learn what's causing them, is launching a new initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to extend the reach of its services.

The Ada app is designed to tell you what's causing your symptoms with more accurate results than you'd get from a Google search. Users open the app, enter their age and gender, and type in a symptom like pain or a cough. Then an AI-powered bot asks several questions, like what makes the symptom worse, and tells you the most likely culprit.

Starting today, Ada is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study how the platform can be used to support healthcare workers in rural parts of several countries in East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and India.

The project is part of Ada's new Global Health Initiative, a series of projects focused on improving access to primary care in underserved populations across the world. The effort will involve work with local governments, NGOs and other partners as well. 

"The reason we’re doing this is the same reason why we started Ada in the first place: it’s about giving people better access to quality healthcare," Daniel Nathrath, CEO and co-founder of Ada Health, told Business Insider. "While it’s a noble goal to pursue it in the US or Germany, it’s even more important in countries where so many people don’t have access to a doctor."

Currently, the app is available in roughly 130 countries including Germany (where it started), the US, and Canada. Already, roughly a third of Ada's customers hail from countries outside of Germany, according to the company.

To Google or not to Google

ada health teamTo Google or not to Google — that's often the question when it comes to an ailment like a cough or stomach pain.

But researching your symptoms online can send you down a rabbit hole that leads you to think you have a life-threatening condition. A trip to the doctor, n the other hand, can be time-consuming and expensive.

Nathrath and his co-founder, Claire Novorol, created Ada Health to give people a third option.

Unlike the results that come from sites like WebMD, Ada's results are based on a growing database of hundreds of thousands of people that match your age and gender. The idea is that by homing in on a population sample you fit into, Ada can give more accurate results.

Say you're a 31-year-old woman experiencing stomach pain, for example. Once you type in your symptoms and answer Ada's questions, it might tell you that most of the other 31-year-old women in the database who reported your symptoms were diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Then Ada may advise visiting a healthcare provider. Or if the likely cause of your symptoms is not a serious issue, Ada may suggest that you simply rest.

ada health symptom q

Putting Ada into the hands of healthcare workers

As part of the new partnership with the Gates Foundation, Ada researchers will look at the data the app gathers in several rural, low-income parts of the world to better understand patients' needs and learn how to improve healthcare delivery to these regions. 

In the future, Nathrath said he hopes such insights could be used to do things like help stop a deadly outbreak.

Hila Azadzoy, Ada's managing director of the Global Health Initiative, told Business Insider that her team is now working to equip Ada with more relevant data on tropical diseases like Chagas and dengue. They're also analyzing what kinds of physical diagnostic tests they could give people — along with Ada — to confirm some of its assessments.

"Most healthcare workers work door-to-door and can track patient symptoms," Azadzoy said. "The vision we have is we can put Ada into their hands and even connect Ada with diagnostics tests so that — at the home of the patient —they can pull it out and say, 'OK this is confirmed,'" she said.

Are symptom checkers the next big thing in primary care?

Since it was founded in Berlin in 2011, Ada has raised $69.3 million with the help of several big-name backers including William Tunstall-Pedoe, the AI entrepreneur behind Amazon's Alexa, and Google’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler. The company says Ada has already been used by 5 million people in the US and Europe, where it is one of the highest ranked medical apps.

Ada is not the only tool that lets users input and track their symptoms. Another so-called "symptom checker" is primary-care app K Health, which launched in 2016.

If these services can get the science and AI right, they offer a long list of potential benefits, including reducing healthcare costs, saving time for patients and doctors, slashing unnecessary worry — and even, one day perhaps, helping to prevent an outbreak like Ebola.

But more data is needed on the effectiveness of these services. The last comprehensive assessment of symptom checkers was published by Harvard Medical School researchers in 2015, before Ada or K Health existed. Since then, at least half a dozen other services have emerged as well.

Until better data becomes available on these apps, they can at least offer users an educated assessment about what's causing a symptom like a sore throat. And in rural areas where people don't have access to a healthcare provider, that could be a huge source of support.

"The first step towards getting the right treatment is understanding what’s ailing you," Nathrath said.

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