You might mistake Michael Vassar for one of those people who thinks computers will replace doctors. The futurist, entrepreneur and AI enthusiast is, after all, spearheading a startup that encourages patients “not to settle for an opinion” from a doctor or put up with the mass-produced product that is healthcare today.
But Vassar says physicians will always be a necessary part in medicine – just not as the determiners of diagnoses and treatment options.
His startup, MetaMed, enlists doctors, researchers and statisticians to perform those functions through what it calls “personalized medical research.” The company provides on-demand medical research to patients with complex conditions.
Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on medical research, the startup reasons, but very little of it is actually used by doctors because they have limited knowledge capacity and time to spend with patients. Why not use people who are skilled at finding, evaluating and analyzing research to look at all of the options and pinpoint the best ones for patients?
You might liken MetaMed’s process to how a lawyer builds a case, by learning the facts about the client, researching law, considering evidence and engaging in analytical thought. “There are very basic principles for how you make decisions in business, and somehow the healthcare system doesn’t do that at all,” Vassar said. “It’s so odd that this business opportunity was just lying around.”
The startup’s clients first discuss their needs with a case manager. If they don’t already have a doctor they like to work with, the company facilitates that relationship. Then it collects all of their medical records and works with them to generate the right questions that will produce the information they are looking for. MetaMed’s team scours primary and secondary literature and analyzes the findings for things like funding bias and publication bias.
The final product is a 10-page report written for patients and their doctors to understand and review together, Vassar said. Generating it takes about two weeks, but that varies with each client, as the process is very much a two-way conversation. In some cases, MetaMed might suggest to a patient that a certain genetic test or blood test would help its team’s analysis, or it might even design an experiment for a very complex patient.
One thing to be clear about is that MetaMed doesn’t pretend to be for everyone: At the most basic level, its services start around $5,000. It’s for people who have already spent tens of thousands of dollars in the medical system and have been disappointed with what they’ve gotten, Vassar said. “It’s for people who are willing to conclude that the system is the level of broken that it actually is, but people who still believe in science and values,” he said.
Vassar got the idea for the company when he was working with outstanding scientists – which he considers an underutilized resource in society – during his time as president of Singularity Institute (which now goes by a more descriptive name, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute). He formalized the company last August with a $500,000 seed investment from PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel.
The key players on the company’s 20-person roster also come from technology and information theory backgrounds. Chairman of the board, Jaan Tallinn, is a founding engineer of Skype. CEO Zvi Mowshowitz is a world class strategist and gamer.
Now the startup is working to get up to a scale where it can do more with big data and automate some of the diagnostic processes, as well as explore various partnerships in medical industry. It should also be able to address more minor medical inquiries in about three years, Vassar said.
But whether it will it ever reach the point of being affordable to the average patient or being covered by insurance, apparently, isn’t really the point. “I looked at all of this from an economics and AI perspective,” Vassar said. “I’m really not trying to make a fashionable style of company. I’m trying to make a company that should have been made 100 years ago.”