Social Determinants, Health IT

With $1.8M fundraise, Pyx wants to be “prescriptive solution to loneliness”

The app stars a friendly chatbot named Pyxir who engages with users through jokes and questions. Its ambitious founder hopes the app can become the prescription for clinical loneliness.

Pyx Health has raised $1.8 million to support the growth of an app it designed to help patients at risk of loneliness or social isolation following hospitalization or some other health event.

Traditional healthcare settings struggle to address social determinants of health like clinical loneliness, Cindy Jordan, the company’s founder and CEO, said in a phone interview. “That is where Pyx was born.”

Based in Tucson, Arizona, Pyx Health has raised $3.5 million overall since its founding in 2017. The company’s app made its debut in 2018 and has nearly 4,000 users so far.

The app tackles a problem that many healthcare experts see as costly and detrimental to overall health. In a 2017 study, for example, AARP found that socially isolated seniors cost Medicare an extra $134 per month compared to those who were more connected. Arthritis, by contrast, cost an extra $117 per month, AARP said.

The issue even arose during the Super Bowl in a commercial for Google Assistant. In the ad, an 85-year-old man asks the voice-activated device for reminders of his late wife, Loretta.

Another startup, Papa, recruits college students to provide senior citizens with companionship and assistance with shopping and other daily activities. The Miami-based company has partnered with several Medicare Advantage Plans.

Pyx Health addresses a very specific audience, Jordan said: Patients whose loneliness or social isolation could affect their health after they leave an emergency room, end an inpatient stay or go through a similar healthcare transition.

Alexa and Google are never going to do that,” Jordan said. “But I think that Alexa and Google are going to be amazing tools for us to get Pyx even further into people’s lives and homes … This is my audacious goal. I really want Pyx to be the prescriptive solution to loneliness.”

The app’s main feature is a chatbot named Pyxir who tells jokes, asks questions and otherwise engages with users. It is built to run on the kinds of phones seniors are more likely to wield. Think Samsung 5 rather than iPhone 11, Jordan said.

Pyx Health also operates a call center whose staff reach out when the app’s screening tools indicates a need for help.

The app’s users come from Medicaid and Medicare payers that refer patients they believe would most benefit from the tool, Jordan said. The patients are contacted by the call center and asked to download the app. It is free to patients, with the cost covered by payers. The company declined to disclose the cost to payers for the service.

The personal touch is key, Jordan said. At a time when most healthcare organizations are wrestling with how to spur greater engagement, nearly 70% of the people contacted by Pyx Health download the app, Jordan said. And 83% of people use it nearly every day for a month.

“We are kind of like the antithesis of a healthcare app,” Jordan said. “It feels like you’re talking to a good friend … Health systems have a hard time doing that.”

Pyxir led off with a screening tool at one point, the UCLA Loneliness Scale. But usage fell 40%, Jordan said. The app still uses the scale, and other assessment tools, but waits until it builds a rapport with a patient.

“We can almost ask anything in the screening module once we have their trust,” Jordan said.

Users can invite friends and family members to interact via the app, Jordan said. But many users prefer Pyxir. In a survey, they said the robot doesn’t judge them.

Jordan declined to disclose where the app is being used. But a case study by one user, a health plan in the Southwest, followed 81 Pyx users who were on Medicaid, including one who had visited the ER 113 times in one year, Jordan said, noting that personal patient information was deidentified. The Pyx users showed a net reduction of 46% in inpatient spending compared to a control group of 200 non-users with similar characteristics as the Pyx users, she said.

“I was astounded,” she said. “I would have been really happy with a 15% to 20% reduction.”

The health system is now undertaking a larger study of 400 Pyx users and 400 non-users, she said.

Pyx Health, meanwhile, is expecting to book $5 million in revenue this year and grow from 22 to 40 employees, Jordan said. Its revenue was $2.1 million for the 18 months ending in December.

Investors in the latest funding round include the Arizona Founders Fund and Todd Davis, co-founder and former CEO of LifeLock. In a phone interview, Davis said he was drawn to Jordan’s passion and talent. She previously founded a referral marketing tool for doctors, which she sold in 2013 to The Advisory Board Co.

“I’m a huge fan of hers and a big believer in her capability,” said Davis, who is based in Phoenix. “She’s going to face challenges. I’m realistic. It’s not going to be easy.” But, he added: “I would love to bet on her every time.”

Picture: Feodora Chiosea, Getty Images