BCBS Ohio partners with Propeller Health to reduce COPD costs using digital inhalers

BCBS of Ohio hopes a digitally enabled inhaler will reduce ED and hospitalization costs associated with COPD. (Getty/AntonioGuillem)

Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Ohio is partnering with Propeller Health, a buzzy new digital health startup focused on personalizing treatment for patients with chronic respiratory disease.

The new program targets patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which impacts approximately 16 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patient care-related costs associated with COPD are projected to reach $49 billion annually by 2020.

A significant portion of those costs is associated with ED utilization and hospitalization. Approximately half of patients that visit the ED for COPD-related issues end up being hospitalized, according to Linda Hotchkiss, M.D., managing medical director of Anthem’s Medicare Advantage Central Region. 

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Using Propeller’s sensor, which attaches to a patient’s inhaler and streams data to a mobile app, users can track medication use. Likewise, providers can access a portal to track COPD management and provide targeted treatment.

BCBS Ohio members with at least one emergency visit related to COPD will be eligible for the program. The insurer is in the process of recruiting 500 members to start.

"Ultimately, this fits into our bigger strategy of expanding our footprint and using digital technology to improve care and reduce costs around readmissions," Hotchkiss told FierceHealthcare. 

Founded in 2007, Propeller Health has raised nearly $70 million, including a $20 million series D round in May. In June, the company announced a strategic investment from McKesson Ventures for an undisclosed amount.

In addition to streaming data to physicians, algorithms can alert care managers if a patient is taking too many rescue breaths, which often leads to an ED visit. That, along with each patient's ability to track their medication adherence, creates the opportunity for a preventative approach to COPD care.

"It will help them reduce the need to even have to go to the ER and manage their disease," Hotchkiss said. "I think it becomes very meaningful in terms of quality of life." 

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Propeller currently has partnerships with four health systems and four other national and regional health plans, including BCBS Ohio. The company has found some success partnering with Dignity Health in California, which reduced hospitalizations by 79% by incorporating the digital intervention. Based on data from five studies, the intervention saves $930 year on average in asthma-related costs.

Those studies caught the attention of Anthem, which saw an opportunity to reduce costs and improve quality of life for COPD patients. 

"Once [patients] can see how they are using their medication and get these insights from talking with their doctor about the patterns that show up, I think you'll see people begin to suffer less and control their symptoms more," Hotchkiss said.