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The Short Version: Many Americans turn to the internet to self-diagnose their physical ailments. But, because medical professionals do not screen many of those online resources, the information can be misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Buoy Health was created in 2014 to solve that problem for individuals, couples, and families. The Buoy navigation platform includes an AI chatbot informed by medical professionals that encourages users to describe their symptoms in detail. In turn, it helps users self-diagnose and suggests treatment options. Not only does Buoy help those who may be suffering, it also alleviates stress on the overcrowded U.S. healthcare system.
The internet is home to a plethora of legitimate health resources, but misleading and incorrect information also abounds. It can be difficult to tell the difference. With so many people researching their health concerns online, that can even lead to an increase in interactions between patients and physicians.
Sometimes, patients contact their doctors to request more information about a condition they found online. But others may have tried the wrong treatment from an online source and need more medical attention.
“Searching online is ineffective, and people know it. And it can just be confusing to people who aren’t trained medical professionals,” said Rachel Lannigan, PA-C and Senior Clinician Researcher for Buoy Health.
Buoy launched in 2014 to ensure individuals, couples, and families have access to accurate medical information and appropriate courses of action.
“We lead consumers to make the right health care decisions at the right time,” said Rachel.
Buoy Assistant asks helps patients to self-diagnose or learn about their symptoms, and then triages care as appropriate — including telemedicine, primary care visit, self-care. That helps each user to have an efficient and personalized experience.
Buoy wants to encourage patients to visit medical facilities when it’s necessary, thus not overtaxing the healthcare system with cases of ailments that require in-home treatment.
“We can say, ‘We think there’s something concerning, you should probably go to the hospital.’ But we can also help people avoid seeking care that they don’t need,” Rachel said.
So far, Buoy has touched more than 9 million users. One of the most common reasons people turn to the navigation platform, and perhaps the internet more generally, is that they’re embarrassed to talk to someone about their symptoms. Those often include stigmatized health concerns related to infertility or sexual health.
“Two out of the top three concerns searched on our site are related to women’s health, including vaginal bleeding and vaginal discharge. Some people might feel more comfortable talking to a computer, rather than a person, when they’re struggling with these symptoms,” Rachel told us.
In many cases, those who may be embarrassed by their health issues can treat themselves at home. If they’re dealing with a problem they can address with an over-the-counter solution, they don’t need to talk to visit a medical professional.
“If the circumstance is right, we provide the necessary guidance for users to manage symptoms in the comfort of their own home. For example, when a user self-diagnoses they have a yeast infection, we offer easily digestible information helping them to treat the condition and we’ll follow up as necessary to check in” said Rachel.
Buoy also helps users who otherwise may let health problems linger and become more significant concerns.
“We have the ability to change people’s behavior and help them to navigate a system that’s intimidating. We’ve had users who thought they needed to go to the emergency room, and in reality, their condition would be better treated with their primary care provider or perhaps through telemedicine. We’ve seen major success in working with consumers to find the right care path that is best suited for them at a certain point in time. Deescalating care when appropriate is better for everyone: consumers, the system, their families,” said Finley Hines, Buoy Health Director of Communications.
When users log on to Buoy for the first time, their first stop is Buoy Assistant. The AI tool was developed and modified by a trained team of medical professionals, engineers, machine learning research scientists and data scientists that ingests information about the user’s symptoms, signs and risk factors to help provide information to the user and what their symptoms could mean.
“When someone visits our navigation tool, they can tell us the symptom that is bothering them the most. Then they can type into a search bar, like the one you might see on Google, that translates what they’re saying into medical terms for our AI to process,” Rachel said.
Then, Buoy Assistant asks users various questions to get a better sense of what might be going on. Those answers provide useful information, including age, gender, risk factors, additional symptoms or exposures.
For example, if a user tells Buoy Assistant that they have a sore throat, the AI will generate related questions which could include asking about a fever or if the individual has been in contact with someone who is sick, that provide more information about the issue.
Once the AI has that information, it can generate the most relevant conditions based on user-reported symptoms and the suggested next care steps.
“A care plan could range from staying at home to calling or visiting the hospital right now,” said Rachel.
If the suggested care step involves seeing a doctor, and the user has shared their employer and health insurance information, Buoy Assistant will triage the user to the appropriate in-network care.
Buoy wants to connect people with vital medical information provided by experts, so they don’t have to rely on inaccurate internet search results. One of the most significant differences between Buoy and other online medical information outlets is its knowledgeable, passionate team. Many of its clinical staff members are practicing medical professionals who let their clinical knowledge inform Buoy Assistant — and vice versa.
“We have practicing clinicians who are innovating within Buoy to make our technology better every day, and they’re also dedicated to remaining on the frontlines of healthcare helping patients face-to-face. We’re all committed to ensuring patients have a better way to navigate the system — technology and AI play a crucial role here. It’s a pretty extraordinary place to work,” said Finley.
The Buoy team also understands that many Americans are confused about the complicated healthcare system and want a better way of tracking their health.
That’s why its technology road map is informed by a medical advisory board, mostly made up of physicians.
“We’re fortunate to leverage our medical advisory board to help us solve different components of our system and evaluate project ideas that we have,” Rachel said.
And feedback from Buoy users helps simplify the process and make navigating the system more straightforward. The Buoy platform plans to continue using both clinical expertise and user experiences to enhance both the AI’s interface and outputs.
That careful planning makes Buoy an even more useful tool for people to learn more about their own health issues.
“At the highest level, there’s a need for a tool like Buoy. We can clear up confusion, get people to change their behaviors for the right reasons, and ultimately drive down unnecessary costs while improving the quality of care for patients across the board,” Finley said.