The Digital Health Guy Gets the Expert Opinion: Sean Duffy, Co-Founder and CEO; with Michelle Geraldi, Communications Specialist; of Omada Health

Sean Duffy

Sean Duffy

Omada Health was founded in 2011 to offer a new way to help people with prediabetes reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, and to help people who already have type 2 diabetes manage their disease more effectively. Today, 150,000 members are using Omada to lead much more healthy lives.

How do people sign up for the Omada program? They begin by visiting the Omada website, where they answer six questions to find out whether they are at risk for chronic disease. If they are, they qualify to join Omada. A short time later, an Omada digital scale arrives in a box. It looks much like any other digital bathroom scale, but it contains a cellular device that communicates with the Omada care team and feeds data to the participant’s private profile.

That begins the process, which moves through two distinct phases of care. During the first phase—called Foundations— members get to know themselves better by tracking and submitting their weight, food, activity and other data. They do so as part of a small group setting and they work with an Omada coach who gives advice on how they are managing their care, and what could be improved. After the first phase, they switch to Focus, where they are coached and supported on hyper-personalized goals based on their progress in Foundations as they make their healthy new habits part of their lives.

The Omada program works.

Within the first year of participation, Omada members consistently lose significant amounts of weight. People who are pre-diabetic lose the amount of weight associated with a 30% reduction in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a 16% reduction in the risk of stroke, and a 13% reduction in the risk of heart disease.

Those are verified statistics, because Omada conducts ongoing clinical studies of members’ health.

What was the motivation behind Omada? What difference has the company made in improving the quality of life for its members?

We recently spent an hour chatting with Sean Duffy, Omada’s Co-Founder and CEO, and Michelle Geraldi, Communications Specialist. They offered up some first-hand observations about the difference that their company has made in people’s lives.

Kevin Pereau: What kind of difference is Omada making in members’ lives?

Sean Duffy Michele Geraldi

Michele Geraldi

Michele Geraldi: As a former coach, I got to see people avoid developing type 2 diabetes, lose weight, take control of their health, and avoid other diseases. It is inspiring to see so many people benefitting. The word Omada means “group” in Greek. To join Omada is to be part of a group, because our members are not alone in their journey, they are connected to a support community. Many people report that they found us after months and months of searching for a way to take control of their health and finding lots of alternatives that they didn’t want to use.

Kevin Pereau: Your website mentions not only diabetes, but other chronic diseases. Are you working only with people who have type 2 diabetes, or do you help with other conditions as well?

Sean Duffy: An enormous body of scientific data shows that pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and excess body weight are all close together, in a matrix. So Omada addresses them all.

The National Diabetes Prevention Program, a famous trial conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, found that when pre-diabetic people lose weight and make behavioral changes, they have a dramatically lower risk for progressing on to type 2 diabetes. Let me mention that, as you know, type 1 is a much different disease, genetically based, that tends to appear when people are younger.

Kevin Pereau: Sean, what led you to start a health care company like Omada?

Sean Duffy: I was always a tech geek. I grew up in Colorado. My mom was a nurse, my dad was an engineer. I ended up studying science undergrad at Columbia University and intended to go to med school. But when I graduated in 2006, I noticed that at night I was actually not studying chemistry and molecules, I was reading tech blogs. I got cold feet about applying straight into medical school. I ended up working at Google for a couple of years. I thought I would do something in primary care, maybe found a startup. I applied to MD/MBA programs, I got into Harvard, but when I was in that program ended up doing an internship at IDEO that was a mix of business and medicine. That was where I ended up meeting my cofounder, Adrian James.

I was determined that it was absolutely possible to help people with their diseases—prediabetes, type 2, hypertension— and help them make changes that would reduce the risk. I took a year off from Harvard and decided that it was possible to help people stop the progression of disease. I saw that there was a way to bring the process to life and make it both delightful and interesting. So that was the foundation of Omada.

Kevin Pereau: Michelle, what has your story been at Omada?

Michele Geraldi:  It’s been a long road of seeing a lot of stories, and working with and watching Omada grow into such an amazing company

Sean Duffy: When Michelle joined the company, there were only five or six people working here. We now have 200. We have become the biggest provider in the country and around the world of this kind of program.

Kevin Pereau: Do you think the social, interactive component of your program has been important to your success?

Sean Duffy: If you are a member, we first give you that digital scale with its cellphone chip. It works right out of the box. You take it out and you step on it. There are no set up procedures to do, no technical headaches. From there, you are matched with a group of 10 other members who have the same health care coach.

The actual program starts on a Sunday – everything kicks off on that day. There is a foundational part of the program that lasts for 16 weeks. Everyone in your group is going through the same shared curricular experience, week by week. And at the end of that, we transition people to a phase that we call a Focus, where you can tailor your program according to your preferences. Perhaps you have a weight loss goal, or you have other goals that can take you a bit further.

But the social component is critical. There are other programs that just give you a calorie counter, or an online coach. But we have learned that if people want to succeed, there are no shortcuts. For most people to make lasting changes, they really must have all the instruments. So our program is fully orchestrated for the user. The first step is simple – you signed up and you started – and then we put you on this amazing machine with different elements that combine in concert.

Kevin Pereau: What challenges have you faced in bringing your company to life?

Sean Duffy: Innovation in the health care sector is amazingly complex. You know, there are studies of financial services that show how complex that industry is, how heavily regulated. But the complexity of health care eclipses that by an order of magnitude.

I sometimes joke that chasing a dollar in the U.S. health care system is like playing a game of Quidditch in Harry Potter, where the players are riding brooms, trying to catch the Golden Snitch, while also trying to score goals. To make progress, you can’t go around the system and be disruptive from the side, you have to dive right into it. There are incredible people in the health care system. You have to learn how what you’re offering fits in the context of all those stakeholders, and you can’t ignore any of them. Omada has to be mindful of what is happening in the diabetes space, the obesity space, government regulators, you name it. We have to learn about all those areas and see how what we are doing fits in and how we impact on all of them.

Michelle Geraldi: Sean has a term that applies to it: “rigorous thoughtfulness.”

Kevin Pereau: What business challenges have you encountered as you have built Omada?

Sean Duffy: If you talk to consumer pricing experts, the moment you get beyond a price point of about $100, you are asking people to make a big purchasing decision. Across income levels, you have to find a way to help people who are most in need, and who might not be able to write that check. That has meant ensuring that Omada has been available as a covered benefit on health plans. It has also meant engaging stakeholders like the American Medical Association, all those aspects, to make sure that we will have this covered for our participants.

So if you look at our engineering team and our designers, you see that many of them come from the consumer world, from consumer companies. We have pulled in the best talent from the consumer side and have had to nurture all the different skill sets in one place, and make sure that all those people are really good at getting the best from each other. We really do learn from each other, help each other get smarter.

Kevin Pereau: How rewarding is it to know that you are helping so many people in such a powerful way?

Michelle Geraldi: Well, one thing we have heard often from our members is that they have changed their lives completely. They have prevented or improved their diabetes, done things with their cholesterol, any number of things. At the end of the program, they will tell you that all those things are going much better. That is very common. I have heard it from many, many people. I suppose it’s just our mission of trying to enable and inspire people and try to help as many of them as possible.

Kevin Pereau: And that’s the answer. Where do you think your company will be in three or five years?

Sean Duffy: In three to five years, I believe we’ll be impacting millions of people. Despite all the complexity and challenges of health care, the huge positive side is that you really have a chance to impact the health of people. For people who want the feeling of making a deep contribution to the world, health care is a fabulous place.

Sean Duffy is Co-Founder and CEO of Omada Health, a company that he founded in 2012 to offer a new way to help people with prediabetes prevent the onset of the disease, and to help people who already have type 2 diabetes manage their disease more effectively. Today, 150,000 members are using Omada to lead healthier lives. Follow Sean on Twitter: @seanduffy 

Michele Geraldi works as a coach and Communications Specialist with Omada Health. “Everyone has a story. It’s my passion to find the best in people and share it with the world. I am currently privileged to be able to do that with individuals who transform their lives through healthy living. By working as a coach and Communications Specialist, I’ve been given the gift to both see the story unfold and then tell it.” Follow Michele on Twitter: @michelegeraldi 

You can follow Omada Health on Twitter: @omadahealth

Heartfelt thanks to you both, Michele & Sean, for taking the time to talk and contributing to my book,  “The Digital Health Revolution” Kevin Pereau – sign up here for updates and get your copy today.