mHealth: & Personal Zen – New Approaches To Data

Two of the panelists on an informative Mobile Health (mHealth) panel at the May M1 Mobile-First Summit showed how big data from evolving sources of scientific/academic research are being used in mobile healthcare apps and platforms.

The companies, and Personal Zen, share certain characteristics, but illustrate quite different approaches as to how big data will be created and presented. Both companies have their roots in academia (behavioral modeling), and both are decidedly committed to mobile. Both have strong interests in the area of helping to treat mental health problems. founder Anmol Madan described to us the company approach as “accumulating a large amount of data and modeling how people behave to determine when behavior is symptomatic.” The science behind this approach was developed at MIT by Madan and colleagues. Ginger amasses data on the patterns of how individuals use their cellphones, “passive mobile data” collection. It then relates this data to its models of what the usage patterns may indicate about the patient’s condition.

For example, a sudden drop off in contacts – shown by number of calls or social media interactions – or a drop off in physical activity – shown by readings from the various cellphone sensors (e.g., accelerometers) – could indicate that a patient who suffers depression is experiencing immediate problems.

While is constantly collecting new data about individuals, Tracy Dennis, founder of Personal Zen, explained that her company is taking a different tack in addressing mental health issues, starting with anxiety. The science behind Personal Zen, cognitive bias modification (CBM), has been recognized in the mental health field for a number of years. It is based on the concept that people have habits that drive anxiety, addictive behavior, compulsive eating, etc.

Dennis has been documenting these habits for about 10 years in her position as professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Hunter and City University of New York. One of her conclusions was that existing treatments that tried to use CBM were often repetitive and “boring” in nature, especially for youths, in whom anxiety is a serious problem. In addition, she points out, many people do not seek treatment because they feel stigmatized, “they feel they are broken.”

Her solution was to turn to mobile, because it could put a treatment in the control of the individual, minimize exposure of the patient’s condition and had a high level of accessibility, at a low cost. Her first offering, which she describes as still being “a beta” is a game available as a free app on the iTunes store. The app uses a “happy sprite” (versus an “angry sprite”) which takes the user through simple exercises designed to relieve anxiety by focusing the user’s attention on happy associations. This starting point is the easy segue from a “game” to a predictive and beneficial tool for both the user and the professional observer.

Of the two, is far ahead in commercialization. Its strategy, Madan states, is clearly focused on hospitals and provider groups, which he describes as “groups that are carrying financial risk.” The two-and-a-half year old company states they are working with 25 hospital systems and has announced several trials, such as one announced earlier this year with UC Davis to study psychotic illness. Madan states that they have “some revenue,” but flatly refuses to even discuss their pricing strategy. Right now they are focused on their trials with institutional health service providers.

He states that they are starting to deploy to “thousands of patients” and will scale commercially in the future. He describes their uniqueness as their expertise in interpreting data and creating models, but also mentions that they have a “patent portfolio.”

Personal Zen is in business startup mode. Dennis has been recruiting a team. She foresees a product line, based on CBM with games that offer treatment for patient conditions such as stress, depression and drinking. Anxiety is the focus of the first product because it is the most commonly diagnosed mental problem, with about 90 million estimated sufferers in the U.S.

Dennis will partner with clinicians, hospitals and enterprise HR departments to evaluate expanding the portfolio of treatment tools. Eventually she foresees embedding “retraining” in many products, for example embedding a “violence vaccine” in violent games. is extremely interested in how new data and new uses of data will affect mobile cloud applications in the entire healthcare field. Having met these two companies through the same event, we were interested in the comparison of how they are attacking the mental health area with creative new approaches. uses a passive data collection approach and is tending to focus on providing symptom warnings to professionals. Personal Zen has started with a game, which has reduced a vast amount of scientific research and data to simple exercises aimed directly at end users.

We could summarize their approaches as: is trying to helpfully influence the system by which patient’s conditions are recognized and treated, while Personal Zen is proactively seeking to provide part of the treatment itself.

Two other questions which interested us for these companies were, first: What about the possibility that regulators might believe their tools should be regulated. Dennis stated that her company has not addressed the issue yet. Madan said that they don’t view as a diagnostic tool and that a diagnostic app would be very different from theirs. (The FDA encourages development of mobile apps and states that at present they “focus only on the apps that present a greater risk to patients if they don’t work as intended and on apps that cause smartphones or other mobile platforms to impact the functionality or performance of traditional medical devices.”)

We also asked about the use of patient data that is derived from their apps/platform. is quick to assure users, stating: “We never read or listen to any of your communication. We’re only interested in the patterns of how you use your phone. All we get is anonymized bits of data – never any content.”

As for Personal Zen, Dennis observed that they could capture how much each user uses the game and that they knew who each user was, so that there was potential to gather data about individuals (we assume on a consent basis).

* Photo by Michael Coghlan [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr