Employee benefits startup HealthJoy jumps into virtual MSK market

HealthJoy is jumping into the crowded virtual musculoskeletal market with a virtual exercise therapy program aimed at tackling a $213 billion health problem in the U.S.

The Chicago-based company, which provides a platform designed to make it easier for employees to use their healthcare benefits, acquired Rekinetics in April as it moved toward that goal. HealthJoy launched in 2014 and has attracted $53 million in funding from investors Health Velocity Capital, U.S. Venture Partners, Chicago Ventures, Epic Ventures, Brandon Cruz and Clint Jones.

Financial terms of the Rekinetics deal were not disclosed.

Rekinetics, co-founded by Jeremy Baber and Brian Astrachan, who is also now general manager of MSK at HealthJoy, is the only company that ties neurology to exercise therapy to ease the suffering caused by MSK issues that affect 126.6 million Americans, HealthJoy executives said.

Baber, who developed the methodology, is now program manager with HealthJoy.

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The link between physical and neurological science is not a recent discovery, Astrachan said. For instance, there is the mind-body experience. The connection to rehab, mostly a physical solution, is a little different.

“There is a huge body of research in the last 20 years with brain imaging of how the brain changes with injury and how it changes with rehabilitation,” Astrachan told Fierce Healthcare.

In a press release announcing the launch, HealthJoy describes MSK issues as characterized by persistent pain and limitations in mobility, dexterity and overall level of functioning in the joints, muscles, spine and bones, reducing people’s ability to work.

It impacts an estimated 126.6 million Americans and costs about $213 billion in annual treatment, care and lost wages, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. MSK care is the third-highest source of employer claims spend, according to the company. 

Called Virtual MSK Care, the program has been successful in beta testing.

Propelled by high adherence and a mobile-first experience, the program’s beta testers reported an 82% reduction in pain, an 85% increase in function improvement and a 95% level of member satisfaction.

“Musculoskeletal pain has traditionally been difficult to treat,” said Patricia Pechter, M.D., HealthJoy chief medical officer, in a statement. “The solutions that work aren’t convenient for patients and the invasive options, like surgery, often don’t work. Like other forms of virtual care, virtual exercise therapy solutions are easier to access, and a coach adding personalization and accountability makes it easy to follow.”

Virtual MSK program (HealthJoy)

It was the successful treatment of a wrist injury Astrachan suffered that convinced him the treatment worked.

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A competitive tennis player at Williams College, where he was a starter on the NCAA championship tennis team, he waded into the world of MSK treatment for his injury only to find that nothing worked.

When finally facing surgery, he tried Rekinetics and was back on the courts in two weeks.

“That was the eye-opening moment,” Astrachan said.

“Our bodies are like a computer,” he said. “When you run great hardware, but run software from 1995, that computer is not going to work so well.”

Conventional rehab and physical therapy focus on the hardware alone. Rekinetics addresses the software, or the neuroscience, he said.

“We knew all this,” Astrachan said. “The first research showing the link between neuro and the physical was in 1895 at Yale and showed that if you put your left arm in a cast, if you don’t use it, it atrophies. But if you use your right arm, it reduces atrophy in the left.”

That is where the brain connection comes in.

HealthJoy’s offering is less than half the cost of a round of in-person physical therapy and has higher adherence, because of in-app reminders, personalized support from online coaches and a connected healthcare experience, HealthJoy says.

RELATED: Kaia Health lands $75M series C on soaring demand for virtual therapies

The treatment often consists of 15 minutes per day, five days per week.

Astrachan said client demand drove HealthJoy to MSK, plus the savings benefit and improved outcomes.

MSK also fit well with the company’s healthcare platform. For instance, there is a high correlation between MSK pain and depression.

“That’s another area where our products lead us,” he said. “A connected healthcare experience. They come to the musculoskeletal program and can see that they are clinically significant with depression, so we can offer a solution on depression as well through HealthJoy.”

HealthJoy believes the connection between neurological science and rehab is the difference maker in a hot market in which millions of dollars have recently been invested.

Hinge Health recently banked a $300 million investment in series D funding while Kiai, a digital therapeutics company, raised $75 million in series C funding.

In other market moves, Omada Health acquired virtual physical therapy company Physera for a reported $30 million, and telehealth company DarioHealth bought Upright Technologies for $31M to expand into the digital MSK market.