As originally published by Authority Magazine
“We are using our AI to identify candidate treatments for a disease that have yet to be tried for that disease, dramatically opening up the potential treatment options for any disease. And we’re doing this across thousands of diseases. This may sound unrealistic, but this is exactly what the scientific community is doing to battle COVID-19. While we wait for a vaccine, the scientific community has been exploring the repurposing of hundreds of existing treatments to battle this pandemic. We are using our database and AI to bring that level of effort for every other disease.”
Asa part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick Howie, CEO and Founder of MediFind — which he started after watching his brother struggle to navigate the healthcare system to treat his rare cancer. Howie is the former head of Global Analytics at Merck and has held senior leadership positions in multiple healthcare startups. He is also the author of “The Evolution of Revolutions.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
“Dude, I’m running out of options, any ideas?”
When I heard that from my brother, my best friend, who was battling a terminal illness, I literally couldn’t breathe. I knew that I had to come up with some ideas. While I was not a doctor, as the head of Global Analytics for one of the largest healthcare companies in the world, I did have access to unparalleled analytic capabilities and an intricate understanding of the world of healthcare. I knew then that my path was to leverage advanced analytics to help patients like my brother with the one thing they wanted most — time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
A little over 15 years ago, a board member of the company I was working for forwarded me a recently published article in Science about “Bayesian Truth Serum,” a novel approach to identifying the best decision to make in uncertain situations. Ever since, I have been actively researching the field of decision-making under uncertainty and have developed and implemented tools used by Fortune 500 companies to improve the quality of their investment decisions. Similar to how the study of calligraphy ultimately became important to the development of the original Macintosh, this serendipitous event has become instrumental into helping patients identify experts for their disease and helping patients find second-opinion experts who are likely to provide additional options.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
While a ton of people have helped along the way in the creation of MediFind, the one person who I have always been particularly grateful for was my financial aid advisor when I was first admitted as an undergrad to the University of Pennsylvania. As the first person to go to college in my family, getting into Penn was long shot. But when I received the “thick” envelope, I was beyond excited. Then I looked at the “what I owe” section and realized my dreams were shattered. My father was a maintenance worker at the local steel mill and there was no way my family could afford Penn without a lot of help. I talked to the financial aid office to explain my situation, and she found a way to get me grants and loans so I could afford to go to Penn. The more I look back, the more pivotal that one hour with her has been to the rest of my life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have never been interested in success independent of bringing goodness to the world, which is why I started my career working on environmental issues then migrated to healthcare. I am lucky enough to have found something that I am passionate about, something that I am good at and something that can help millions of people. I truly believe that what we are building at MediFind has the ability to positively influence hundreds of millions of lives over the next decade and I am spending every ounce of energy I have to bring our “goodness” to as many people as I can.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Imagine you have been diagnosed with a rare disease, have worked with a pair of experts (both found through MediFind) to understand all of your treatment options (again, found through MediFind). But imagine that none of those treatments worked. This is the scariest situation facing any patient because many lose hope. But what if there is a treatment that has been successful in another disease with similar characteristics to your own, but has not been tried for your disease yet? The truth is that with thousands of treatments there is no way that every candidate treatment has been explored for your disease.
We are using our AI to identify candidate treatments for a disease that have yet to be tried for that disease, dramatically opening up the potential treatment options for any disease. And we’re doing this across thousands of diseases. This may sound unrealistic, but this is exactly what the scientific community is doing to battle COVID-19. While we wait for a vaccine, the scientific community has been exploring the repurposing of hundreds of existing treatments to battle this pandemic. We are using our database and AI to bring that level of effort for every other disease.
How do you think this might change the world?
Too many of those one billion people in the world struggling with rare and serious diseases are running out of options. While scientists are working to develop new treatments for some of those diseases, those treatments take years to develop and are typically too expensive for the vast majority of patients. And many diseases are too small to attract much research at all, meaning there is little hope of a treatment advance anytime soon. Fewer than 5% of rare diseases have an approved treatment. By identifying already available treatments for similar diseases, many of which are already generic, we hope to provide additional affordable treatment options to those people who are running out of options.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
When we tried our first analysis for my brother’s rare disease, I saw his four-year journey unfold before my eyes, and I realized how much time he had lost trying to find his way through the healthcare system. Despite regaining hope by finding a new option, my efforts were too late to help my brother. However, five years and tens of thousands of hours later, I founded MediFind, a company that gives the 175 million people in the U.S. (and over a billion worldwide) struggling with serious, rare and chronic diseases the one thing I couldn’t give me brother — more time.
I no longer tear up every time I tell the story, but it does feel like I am picking at a wound that refuses to fully heal. My obituary for him started with the cliché of, “Every cloud has a silver lining,” but little did I know then that the real silver lining was the job I have now.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We launched our patient platform on the rarest of days, February 29, 2020, which also happened to be Rare Disease Day. Two weeks later, the world shut down and since then, COVID-19 has been the only thing on people’s minds. For us to succeed in this context, patients must become aware that MediFind exists and know that we can help them dramatically shorten their patient journey. This is especially important given the massive reduction in doctor visits and non-Coronavirus testing that has occurred since the pandemic’s outbreak, which is likely to lead to a bolus of patients being diagnosed much later than they otherwise might have been. Widespread adoption of MediFind will come from word of mouth, which can be a little more challenging in the healthcare space, since many patients don’t like to tell others about their health problems. But we are confident that the benefit we provide will rapidly spread as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, and perhaps become even more critical given the widespread delays in care the pandemic has caused.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
- That MediFind was going to launch into a pandemic. We are focusing on all 7,000 diseases but the world is focused on only one at the moment.
- That understanding how Google “sees” you is critical, and that search engine optimization is a science. Ironically, we have had to spend time on features that do not help the patient experience just for Google, because we know that without Google visibility, we will be unlikely to reach (and help) patients.
- That the employee policy manual should have the fewest policies possible. It seems that the time taken dealing with policies is a squared function of the number of policies you have. And the reality is that most policies actually get in the way of productivity instead of enhancing it.
- That when you have something good, there are a lot of people and organizations who will try to get a piece of what you are doing without offering anything of real value in return. The good news is that we are clearly on to something.
- That the hardest thing to do is find the right balance of speed and quality. The faster we get our new products and services out, the faster we can help patients fighting a rare disease right now. But, since we are dealing with health, we must balance that desire to help with making sure the quality of what we provide is extremely high.
You are a person of great influence — If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the biggest opportunity we have in healthcare is for patients to demand access to all of their health results (including scans) in a standardized format as soon as the information is created. While we have made great strides in standardizing some of our information, we have a really long way yet to go. The true power of analytics and AI in healthcare will be unleashed once that happens.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I grew up in a working-class family where it always felt like other, more powerful people had control over our fate. But the phrase, “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” helped me realize that I had the power to influence the world as opposed to just being pushed along by the seeming vagaries of life. Despite my father only having an eighth-grade education and not having a single family member graduate from college, I used that mantra to become the first person to graduate college in my family. I have always thought, “Why not me?” when I wanted to do something that seemed pretty far-fetched, like getting into an Ivy League college and writing my first book. When the idea for MediFind came to me, it just felt like it was my responsibility to do it now.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Our mission is simple: give patients the most precious commodity in the world — time. We do this through our expertise in analytics and healthcare information, and we recognize that most patients don’t want to think of themselves as patients. They are people with a healthcare problem to solve at that moment. Our solutions must recognize that to most patients, healthcare is transactional and must help solve their problem with as little friction as possible. If you have the same vision for healthcare, then let’s talk.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We realize that many organizations are already well-respected and trusted by patients, particularly advocacy organizations. Given our mission of helping as many patients have as much time as possible, we’ve begun to partner directly with these organizations. One innovative approach has been to make our technology portable, via development of an embeddable widget powered by MediFind technology. We’ve started with our Doctor Finder but are exploring other applications as demand dictates (second opinions, clinical trials, recent research). This strategy is low-cost and high impact; it helps advocacy groups solve a problem and helps MediFind reach the front lines of patient care more effectively.