Finding purpose in pain

How one health professional is harnessing digital power to help manage and ease chronic pain.

Kathy Hubble is a nurse and clinical educator with a Masters degree in pain medicine and over 20 years of clinical experience working with people living with chronic pain. In Australia, over 3 million people suffer from chronic pain, costing $139 billion per year, and Kathy saw first-hand the enormous burden of human suffering caused by chronic pain. And working as a return-to-work specialist in the insurance industry, she experienced the problems of providing services to people living with persistent pain from the perspective of third-party funders.

Frustrated that more than 80 per cent of people couldn’t access evidence-based care, and that the education of health professionals was not changing practice at the coal face, Kathy embarked on the Tech Ready Women Incubator program, to develop her idea of an integrated online learning platform for people on claim with chronic pain, and their rehabilitation professionals.

The program helped Kathy develop that kernel of an idea into the Amelio Pain Program, an online learning management system integrated with an app. Using validated pain measurement tools and carefully curated content, the program uses data from the platform and wearable devices to drive behaviour change supported by a live health coach via a chatbot. Agile, just-in-time work integrated learning supports healthcare professionals to support the patients through the program. The next milestone for the program will be the accreditation of the clinical education pathway as a university level qualification in partnership with a recognised training organisation.

“I wanted these people to have access to 24-hour support to give them a pain team in their pocket.”

Since launching at the end of January 2020, Amelio Health has secured a partnership with the largest rehabilitation provider in Australia in Recovre Group, and a pilot with Suncorp. Amelio Health has also partnered with Rehab Management and Active OHS in Australia. The start-up also headed abroad with a partnership with RTW Plus, a rehabilitation provider in the UK, who was recently accepted into a digital health innovation program with the UK’s NHS. Amelio Health won two gold awards for Digital Innovation and Health & Wellbeing Award at the 2020 AusMumpreneur Awards – recognition that Kathy describes as “a fantastic way to shine the light on the problem of chronic pain and how we help people to manage their pain and get their lives back”.

We spoke to Kathy about what has evidently been a rapid learning – and growth – curve since she started the business at the beginning of this year.

ISB: Please tell us more about the inspiration behind you setting up Amelio Health.

KH: I have been working with people who suffer from chronic pain for 20 years, and there is nothing more inspiring than reducing a person’s suffering and helping them get their life back. When you have seen the journey some people have been on, your heart just breaks for them. I know what works, and it is not continually chasing pain down the rabbit hole of repeated surgeries and medications; it’s retraining the nervous system, and that takes hard work and commitment.

In Australia we have over three million people suffering with chronic pain and patients can wait between 12 months and five years to get an appointment in a pain clinic, only to be given repeated treatments that fail to help them and often make their pain worse. Over 1000 people die each year due to opioids. Then you add the burden of workers compensation and income protection insurance, where people perceive they are being financially penalised for recovering, the psychosocial burden is unbearable. These people needed support, knowledge and understanding. They needed someone they could trust to give them the truth about managing pain and getting their life back.

I came across Tech Ready Women on LinkedIn while working for a re-insurer in life insurance, and thought, “I have to have a look and see if they can help me set up my idea”. I had been working in a male-dominated corporate world, and it was refreshing to meet other women who had come from the same environment and understood my idea and helped me find product market fit, and test my hypothesis.

We launched on Jan 29 2020 … right into the start of COVID-19?!

ISB: And what role has digital technology played in the development of the business?

KH: I had already established that there were major flaws in access to pain management programs, particularly in the rural and regional areas, so the program had to be online. However, I wanted more than that; I wanted these people to have access to 24-hour support. To give them a pain team in their pocket. Somewhere they could watch videos from the experts talking about why they hurt. Live people who would listen and validate their concerns. This was only possible with current technology. A learning platform embedded with an app that people could access anywhere and everywhere, with a live chatbot to support them.

This was not enough, however. I wanted to also change the way rehabilitation consultants managed people on claim with chronic pain. I had been educating health professionals for 20 years, along with all my colleagues, and we still weren’t changing practice at the coal face. So, I integrated a learning path of the rehabilitation consultant with the person on claim that had chronic pain. They learned together, to implement the strategies that I knew had worked for people in the past.

ISB: Based on your experience, what opportunities does digital transformation offer the healthcare sector, and what are the biggest barriers to its adoption?

KH: With machine learning and digital innovation we can provide everyone with live data, support and access to information instantly. We can capture how people are living in their daily lives with wearables, how their sleep and functional capacity is being affected, and this data can drive the live chatbot coaching. The only limitations are your imagination and our medically-based remuneration system of Medicare. Medicare does not provide a lot of support for people with chronic pain, who require many sessions of allied health. Five per year for a chronic illness is nowhere near enough. So, for the moment we have to remain offering our service to those who provide support for our service.

ISB: How do you see the business developing in the next couple of years, and what role will technology play in those plans?

Currently we are focused on finishing our pilot with Recovre and GIO, and completing a white paper in early 2021.

We have also partnered with RTW Plus in the UK, who are working hard to roll out the program to people who have chronic pain in the UK. We are currently focused on expanding this, as well as providing a COVID-19 solution for people now suffering with chronic conditions following contracting a disease. We are also connecting with change-makers in insure-tech in the US. This three-pronged approach should keep us expanding for quite a few years to come.

This story first appeared in issue 31 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine

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