Next IT Corp., the natural language software company that recently moved its operations to Spokane Valley from downtown, has launched a new entity called Next IT Healthcare.
Next IT develops software-guided avatars that companies and organizations use to interface verbally with their customers. Two of its better known virtual assistant avatars are the “Ask Jenn” function of the Alaska Airlines website, and the “Ask Sgt. Star” virtual guide for the U.S. Army. The company’s other clients include Aetna Insurance, Alaska Airlines, Amtrak, Merrill Lynch, and United Airlines.
Mitch Lawrence, president of Next IT Healthcare, says the company’s latest decision to make Next IT Healthcare a separate entity was driven by the need to create a focus on health care. Although it is still growing, 50 employees currently are dedicated to the new health care entity.
“Health care is a unique business, with its own language and needs,” says Lawrence. “What we were seeing was that our customers wanted a stand-alone entity with a singular focus on health care.”
He adds, “Some of the more clinical aspects of health care require a level of expertise. We wanted to be able to be sure we were building our future around that and hiring employees for that, without squelching the creativity of our IT group.”
Since the launch of its first health care product a year ago, Next IT has increased the number of its health care customers. The product, called Alme Health Coach, is what is known as a virtual health assistant. Built for clinical patient engagement, the avatar is designed to guide patients during their time between doctor visits, and through coaching, encourage individuals to adhere to their health management plan.
Lawrence says the need for interactive technology in health care is only continuing to grow. He says two main factors are behind this need: a shortage of providers and consumer preference in communication.
“First, we have growing populations dealing with chronic disease combined with a shortage of health care providers.” says Lawrence. “The other piece we’re seeing with the proliferation of smart devices is people who are more willing to access information. They don’t want to communicate over the phone, or take time to visit an office when they can easily look up the information they need.”
Lawrence argues there is a gap between health care providers and patients that technology can fill.
“The health care system as a whole has reacted to the shortage of doctors with call centers, but none of them can keep up with the demand,” he contends. “Our technology can help fill that space.”
Lawrence says the real test of technology, however, comes down to usage rates, which for Alme Health Coach are better than average.
“We look at initial engagement and sustained engagement, both of which for us are continuing to improve,” he says. “We’re even seeing our technology start to change behaviors, as patients use it to stay more compliant with their health plans.”
Lawrence says technology such as Alme gives providers insight into a patient’s daily activity, enabling them to fit a patient’s care plan to their lifestyle needs.
“That’s the really beautiful thing about technology, that we can design it so the patient can connect in these ways with their provider,” he says.
Next IT Healthcare’s current focus is on improving Alme, building models for specific diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, hepatitis C, and others.
“We’re taking it one step at a time, developing the language so Alme knows everything about each disease and can help a patient follow their care plan,” says Lawrence.
He says the company’s next project will be the launch of its own clinical trials, the first of which will look at the success of Alme in the patient population.
“We have approval from the Quorum Review Independent Review Board to begin conducting the trial, and should have our first patient enrolled in the study come November,” says Lawrence. “The study will be ongoing, looking at the effectiveness of Alme and our ability to drive outcomes for a particular disease state.” As the trial expands, the company plans to broaden the study to include other diseases.
Also in November the company is set to host its first event, The Next Edge: Health Experience Summit, to be held in Philadelphia. Jennifer Snell, vice president of marketing for Next IT says of the summit, “We have a world-class group of speakers lined up, and we’re focused on coming together to discuss solutions that fit seamlessly into a patient’s life so they can be of benefit to them.”
Founded in 2002 by Spokane entrepreneur Fred Brown, Next IT moved last month to a new building at 12809 E. Mirabeau Parkway, in the Pinecroft Business Park. The building has about 44,000 square feet of space and hosts the company’s 160 employees. Previously, the company was located in the Paulsen Building, at 421 W. Riverside downtown.
Lawrence says the company outgrew the space.
“This new building features an open floor plan that’s a bit more conducive to our work with software development,” he says.
Lawrence says the building provides Next IT with an additional 30 percent capacity, and the company is looking to hire more employees.
He declines to disclose company revenue or sales figures.
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