By Olivia P. Tallet
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The “Ada app” which is multilingual, delivers the most probable diagnosis from your symptoms, adding a couple of secondary potential ones. The app also gives you recommendations on how to take care of the problem, and advises whether you need to see a medical specialist right away.
“Feeling unwell?” asks Ada.
She exudes a confident bedside manner, assuring you “I get smarter the more you tell me, so I’m going to ask a few questions that will help me help you.”
And in a few minutes, after she is satisfied with the answers you provided about your health concerns, Ada delivers the most probable diagnosis from your symptoms, adding a couple of secondary potential ones. She also gives you recommendations on how to take care of the problem, and advises whether you need to see a medical specialist right away.
But she isn’t a doctor, but the closest thing to one that you can carry in your pocket. Ada is a multilingual artificial intelligence health application for smartphones, and was created by a former student of the University of Houston. And after helping millions of satisfied users in English and German languages, the highly intuitive application is now adding Spanish and Portuguese to its suite of languages, with an eye towards serving the vast market of Latinos in the U.S. and worldwide.
“Now, with the expansion of the app translated into Spanish, we can extend the health platform to millions more users,” said Daniel Nathrath, the CEO and co-founder of Ada, who said he was inspired by his time in Houston to create it.
Considered one of the top apps in its category, Ada has accumulated about five million downloads for Android and Apple devices worldwide, and is now targeting the large Latino community, one whose health needs have been historically underserved particularly in the United States.
More than 40 million people in the U.S. are native or bilingual Spanish speakers, and over 700,000 of them reside in Harris County.
Nathrath attended the University of Houston Law Center from 1995-1996 while earning his master of law as a Fulbright Scholar. He earned an MBA at the University of Chicago and became an entrepreneur working with startups, focusing his interest in applying transformational technology to new industries.
“I’ve seen first-hand that access to basic health care services is not something that is readily available to all,” Nathrath said. “One of the primary reasons we developed Ada was to address healthcare inequities and bring quality health care to all.”
He founded Ada in 2011, headquartered in Germany, with pediatrician and pathologist Claire Novorol and neuroscientist and innovator Martin Hirsch.
Initially, Ada was created with doctors in mind as the primary users. Later, however, the founders changed the focus.
“Since we strongly believe that change in health care will be driven from the consumer side, we decided to make our AI (Artificial Intelligence) available to patients directly,” Nathrath said. He explained that Ada was launched for public use in 2016 after five years of development and database building by a team of over 100 doctors, scientists and engineers.
For Texans, affordable health care is at the top of their financial concerns, surpassing even making their mortgage payments and other costs of living categories, the Kiser Family Foundation indicates in a study.
And as healthcare costs continues to rise in the country, Americans in general are delaying clinical visits.
Nathrath said that before launching the new Spanish integration, the company received significant interest from people in the U.S. and Latin America saying that they wanted to use Ada but couldn’t understand everything in English.
Nathrath said living in, and later visiting, a diverse city like Houston to meet with health care providers, “I know from first-hand experience that many people are more comfortable expressing their medical needs in their native language.”
Several studies have shown that Latinos are less likely than other populations to seek health care in spite of having the highest incidence of chronic illnesses such as diabetes.
They also have a lower utilization of health services that are available to them. About 30 percent of Hispanics do not have a usual healthcare provider, which includes more than half who speak English and 45 percent who have health insurance, according to a study from Salud America (Health America), a project of The Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health San Antonio. It suggests, the report says, that language preference for medical services is a substantial factor, among others.
“Language is critical when it comes to healthcare so that the patient is understood well and both their language and cultural needs are addressed,” said Kara Green, a nurse and Clinical and Quality Director at the HOPE Clinic, a Community Health Center with facilities in three Houston areas.
Green considers that cost, cultural preferences and a complex medical system to find doctors matching their health plans are factors in the lack of healthcare utilization among this population.
“Many of my Latino patients work long hours in difficult conditions outside or in physically taxing jobs, so finding time to go to the doctor’s office is difficult if there are no extended hours,” Green added.
Green, who tested Ada, said the “app has positives and I like that there are links for local sources of care… (and) instructions for when to seek care is included.”
Ada is free of charge and has the highest consumer ranks among similar apps in the Apple and Android stores, with 4.8 and 4.7 stars out of five, respectively. It has been listed as the number one of most reliable among competitors by publications such as Wired.
“We are meeting an immense demand,” Nathrath said.
Besides the new potential Spanish speaking users, Ada is targeting English language consumers in the U.S. that may not be aware of this tool, the company said.
“There is a staggering amount of people without access to readily accessible, quality healthcare” in the U.S., Nathrath said. Among them, he added, are the nearly 65 million U.S. citizens who live in federally-designated health professional shortages, often called “healthcare deserts.”
Unlike thousands of applications dedicated to health and fitness or specific kinds of illnesses, only a handful of apps are devoted to general, personalized medical consultation for consumers to help them with a diagnosis and providing guidance on when to seek professional care.
Another application in the same group is the WebMD app, serving in the English language with 4.2 ratings among Android consumers.
With increasing costs and innovation advances, consulting firms identify consumer-driven health care and artificial intelligence technologies as one of the top trends that will disrupt the medical industry, placing more power in the hands of patients.
Cost alone is a big driver, not only for consumers, but also for the industry.
“We want to help the whole system drastically save cost,” Nathrath said. As an example, he noted that “people go to the emergency room when they shouldn’t,” a misuse of medical resources that costs the U.S. an estimated 38 billion dollars annually.
With an option for app users to share information with their doctors, Ada would help physicians to save time and gain efficiencies, he added. And while doctors recognize the utility of Ada, they also warn the public about the importance of face to face consulting with health specialists.
Doctor Lauren Krenek, a pediatrician for HOPE, said that Ada “is a good app to help provide a general idea of when patients need to call and seek immediate help (and) can be useful for initial triaging.”
However, she suggests that patients seek professional advice in person when they are unsure about their health concerns.