Dr. Kevin Campbell and Christy Dimond, one of his co-founders at StreaMD.

Dr. Kevin Campbell and Christy Dimond, one of his co-founders at StreaMD.

Everett Fitch / Sun-Times

Dr. Kevin Campbell: Helping people get back on their feet with post-surgery text messages

The orthopedic surgeon launched StreaMD, a Chicago tech startup, to try to help make recovery easier after an operation.

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Founding a start-up company wasn’t high on Kevin Campbell’s to-do list.

The young orthopedic surgeon was busy with his residency at Rush University Medical Center in early 2016 when he sent his mother Therese a series of personalized instructional text messages and exercise videos to help her recover from an orthopedic injury. 

“She told me how much she enjoyed those messages,” said Campbell, 32, a Wisconsin native. “And suddenly I thought, ‘Huh, this would be a really cool way to connect with patients and help them feel this type of support from their own doctor.’”

Soon after, StreaMD was born. The Chicago health-tech company, led by Campbell and fellow Rush resident Philip Louie, is an automated text-messaging system that provides orthopedic patients with step-by-step coaching pre- and post-surgery, using physician chatbots.

Chatbots — also known as virtual assistants or conversational agents — are trending these days. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, they’ve gotten smarter, more responsive and more useful. And more businesses are using them to interact with customers because they’re good at mimicking a conversation with a real person, and they’re always available.

People using StreaMD might get a text the night before a surgery reminding them not to eat or drink anything after midnight, with words of encouragement like: “We know you’re nervous. That’s normal at this point. And we’re going to do everything we can to take really good care of you.” Or, after a procedure, a patient might ask, “When can I change my bandage?” The system will send back a short message with instructions on bandages or other ways to lessen their pain. 

“It’s a useful and simple way for patients to get information that they need when they need it, and ultimately it just helps to reduce the friction of communication,” Campbell said. “They’re not having to look through a big packet of written instructions that generally are hard to interpret. And then, on the other side, [doctors and their offices] are getting relief from phone calls because the most common questions are being addressed in the text messages.”

And because the system utilizes SMS messages, StreaMD avoids what might be called app-fatigue — the feeling people get at having to sign up for a new service and download new software on smartphones for ... everything. 

The StreaMD website.

The StreaMD website.

Everett Fitch / Sun-Times

“There’s a lot out there that want you to use a traditional mobile application or a web-based portal,” Campbell said. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was creating something practical that would be used by teenagers and grandma or grandpa. Our solution was to keep it simple.”

Three and a half years later, what once was Campbell’s side hustle is on the upswing. About 5,000 patients have used StreaMD. A randomized trial that Campbell was an author of that was published in the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery earlier this year looked at 159 people undergoing knee or hip-replacement and found that those using the text message service spent fewer days on opioid medications, more time on home exercises and had a faster return of knee motion.

StreaMD remains a small affair for now — with six employees, including Campbell’s wife Christy. But Campbell — who is completing a surgical fellowship in Utah after five years as a resident at Rush — said his goal is to expand to more hospitals and clinics and move beyond orthopedic surgery to other subspecialties.

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