How Proton Health Is Giving This Skin Condition A Digital Health Upgrade

Physicians Haroon, Niall, and Noreen used their own battles with eczema as a catalyst to build the world’s first end-to-end digital health app for the 550 million people around the world who suffer from the condition. By allowing symptom tracking, advanced analytics, and personalized coaching, the team believes that they can make eczema a problem of the past.

Physicians Haroon, Niall, and Noreen used their own battles with eczema as a catalyst to build the world’s first end-to-end digital health app for the 550 million people worldwide who suffer from the condition. By allowing symptom tracking, advanced analytics, and personalized coaching, the team believes that they can make eczema a problem of the past.

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The Challenge

Eczema. It’s that frustrating, chronic skin condition characterized by red, dry, itchy skin. It’s a common problem, perhaps more common than most people realize. Around 550 million people around the world suffer from it. And they suffer primarily in silence.

Why suffer in silence?

Because it’s itchy skin. Eczema isn’t exactly grabbing headlines or demanding massive R&D investment. When people tell their doctor they have dry, itchy skin, they’re usually given a laundry list of creams and home remedies to try in the hopes that one will work. It’s a haphazard trial-and-error approach lacking data that leaves patients frustrated and disillusioned with healthcare. After a few attempts at remedies, most people just settle in for their life as chronic eczema sufferers.

Individuals with eczema experience a flare-up every three days; for the most part, they don’t know why. Eczema flare-ups can be caused by anything from stress to diet, sleep, and weather. Unfortunately, because it’s so hard to predict when they’ll have a bad day, patients are always on the back foot, reacting to the problem instead of preventing it.

But it’s more than an annoyance. Eczema goes deeper than the skin, often impacting patients’ ability to sleep, work, and socialize. People with this condition can get to a point where they just don’t want to leave their homes for fear of a flare-up. They’re uncomfortable, they’re embarrassed, they’re anxious. Sadly, most people accept their fate, assuming nothing will ever improve.

As eczema sufferers and physicians, Haroon Ahmad, Niall Jawad, and Noreen Akram had a unique lens into the problem. But unfortunately, they’d become disillusioned with the management of eczema and other chronic conditions. With Proton Health, they’re creating a tech-enabled, data-driven platform to help people with chronic skin conditions get healthy skin and reclaim their lives.

Origin Story

Haroon Ahmad has suffered from severe eczema for as long as he can remember. His flare-ups were highly visible, causing red, bumpy outbreaks on his face, neck, and arms. He’s naturally outgoing, but the fear of a visible flare-up pushed him into the shadows. In fact, he was a grown man before he felt confident enough to speak in public.

While studying at medical school, he finally got to grips with the condition. He was pleased to discover that he could reduce the problem by paying closer attention to his eczema and following evidence-based practices. During this period, he met his co-founders, Noreen and Niall, who had also suffered from the condition.

Something shifted for them during their third year of medical school. During their first rotation in a hospital, they began to see the system’s flaws and how senior doctors were struggling under the weight of a bureaucratic system. They went from eager, aspiring doctors to individuals whose eyes had been opened to the healthcare system's shortcomings. “We’re clinicians who don’t quite fit the traditional mould,” says Ahmad. “We saw many health problems that were just being passed by. There was talk about preventative health and patient-centric care, but we weren’t seeing that in action.”

Casting for answers, Haroon decided to get a management degree, Niall taught himself to program, and Noreen worked to validate a medical device as part of a neuroscience degree. That’s when things clicked into place. These experiences tapped into their natural entrepreneurial bent and shifted their mindsets. Where before they felt like disillusioned victims of the healthcare system, they were now inspired to change healthcare from the inside out. Taking this mentality into the final year of med school, they quickly honed in on a challenge to address: eczema. It impacted hundreds of millions of lives, benefited from specialist knowledge, and had been neglected in the digital health revolution.

Their back-of-the-napkin concepts about a tech-enabled eczema platform materialized quickly. It wasn’t long before the three were winning pitch competitions, gaining early financial support from their university, and being backed by reputable academic institutions. Those early wins gave the co-founders the confidence to dive in fully and launch Proton Health alongside their work as junior doctors.

Under the Hood

Ahmad calls Proton Health “the FitBit for eczema management.” He means that the app-based platform enables patients to track their condition easily, understand it in more detail, and manage it more effectively.

It works like this: The patient opens the app and is prompted to journal about their skin condition. It starts with a 30-second survey, asking, “Where is eczema affecting you today?” “How severe are your symptoms?” and “How have you been sleeping?” The data captured on the app is then used to provide bespoke insights and analysis to help patients understand when they have flare-ups and why. For example, perhaps their exacerbations correlate with poor sleep or stressful situations. That mapping allows the user to move from reactive to proactive management.

According to Haroon, the team has amassed the world’s most comprehensive content library for eczema care. They analyzed more than 200 academic papers and distilled them into over 150 lessons. That enables them to push out bite-sized wisdom about what causes eczema and how to manage it, based on the individual patient and situation. When it comes to eczema, knowledge truly is power. Research has shown that simply providing sound knowledge to patients can reduce flare-ups by as much as 45% and improve quality of life by 78%.

Another important aspect of the platform is habit change. Eczema can cause an addiction to itching, and conversely, an addiction to itching can cause eczema. It’s termed the itch-scratch cycle, and studies have shown that 70% of the time that an eczema sufferer feels the urge to scratch; that urge is chronic and not based on a change in their skin. The Proton Health team realized that targeting the itching habit could cut off the skin irritation before it starts. So the app has built a 30-day habit reversal program that helps people break their scratching habit. Research has shown that this methodology can eradicate chronic eczema in 90% of patients.

The next development phase will allow the company to leverage the data collected to conduct teledermatology consultations, introduce advanced tracking capabilities, and eventually predict the cause of eczema flare-ups to deliver truly preventative therapy.

Why We’re Proud to Invest

When we first met Haroon, Noreen, and Niall, we knew they had a unique combination of expertise and personal knowledge. They were the right team for this project. As life-long eczema sufferers, they knew the subject intimately. They’ve dedicated years of medical training to reading eczema literature, allowing them to empathize with their end users. They also have a diverse set of skills that will enable them to bring the company to market sustainably.

We’re also proud to back Proton Health because they’re bringing the best of digital health to a massive community of patients who have, until now, been suffering in silence. Dry, red, itchy skin flare-ups might seem like a minor ailment to those who haven’t experienced it, but the condition harms sleep, stunts growth, and causes anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Yet, the team has proven that eczema is manageable with the correct data and education. This global community deserves access to that care.

Finally, we’re bullish on Proton Health because the time is right to bring every speciality area of health into the modern virtual, data-driven, tech-enabled care world. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve experienced a revolution in virtual care and remote patient monitoring. The next phase is to extend these benefits to more niche communities of patients with specialized tools and understanding. Eczema is essential to this digital health evolution and will help millions live fuller lives.

We are excited to see how Haroon, Niall, and Noreen will open up access to care for millions of eczema sufferers and use their data-driven approach to improve dermatology writ large. So join us in welcoming them to the StartUp Health portfolio.

August 1, 2022
Dr Noreen Akram
Proton Health Programme
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