Mar 2, 2022 - Economy & Business

Scoop: Public health startups join digital forces

Illustration of a stethoscope in the shape of a pair of lungs.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Gates Foundation-backed Dimagi, which makes digital tools for health workers in remote areas, is acquiring SureAdhere, a tuberculosis-focused software startup, a source tells Axios.

Why it matters: The acquisition, which the companies confirmed to Axios, unites two public health-focused virtual care companies and gives Dimagi access to video directly observed therapy (VDOT), an important digital tool for tuberculosis care.

Details: VDOT lets health workers virtually observe people with TB as they take their medications, a complex process that often involves multiple drugs and lasts 6-12 months.

  • Beyond the convenience, virtual observation has been found to be as effective as in-person observation according to a recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.
  • Cambridge, Mass.-based Dimagi — spun out of MIT Media Lab and the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program — has received most of its funding from sponsors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • San Diego, Calif.-based SureAdhere is entirely internally funded, aside from small loans it received as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.

How it works: Dimagi's flagship product, called CommCare, helps frontline health workers in under-resourced areas around the world manage patient data and deliver care.

  • The service is widely used by frontline health workers in the developing world who treat people with illnesses including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and heart disease.
  • Dimagi's SureAdhere acquisition adds another tool for TB treatment to its tool belt and gives Dimagi the potential to make CommCare more expansive and personalized.
  • "In the U.S. there are typically two choices for digital health tools: Fully prebuilt or fully custom," Dimagi CEO Jonathan Jackson tells Axios. "We think we're in the middle of providing what the public health sector needs — a fully built but customizable solution."

What they're saying: While SureAdhere's current focus is on TB medication adherence, the acquisition enables it to expand into HIV prep and supporting patients on medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid overuse disorder, says SureAdhere CEO Kelly Collins.

  • "There was no way to provide virtual support for some of these areas, including MAT, before Covid, so we're just starting to gain traction there," Collins says.
  • Combining SureAdhere's virtual care features with CommCare's health worker-focused tools could also help support lower-cost clinical trials in low-resourced settings, adds Collins.

The bottom line: While digital health tools focused on the affluent or "worried well" proliferate, it's worth paying attention to the ways in which virtual capabilities are helping to strengthen health care offerings in less privileged corners of the world.

  • "Our primary market is the community health care workforce. That's who we want to build the right tech for," says Jackson.

Erin Brodwin co-authors the Axios Pro Health Tech deals newsletter. Start your free trial at AxiosPro.com.

Go deeper