Hill Native Develops Mobile Health Apps

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Dogpatch Technology co-founders Jean Miller Truelson and Palmer Truelson formed a business partnership before they fashioned a more intimate one: marriage. 

The two former Second Life employees came together when Jean left the San Francisco-based Linden Lab startup that created the once hugely popular online virtual world to develop a product to help with her cancer-stricken father.  Jean asked Palmer – a Texas native who’d moved to the City and met Jean at Second Life after his video game company was acquired – to join her as she pursued a deeply personal project. They went into business together in 2011, and married nine months later.

When Jean’s father was diagnosed with terminal gastric cancer she found herself frustrated with the available tools to support her as a caregiver. She asked Palmer, “Can you help me build something better?”

Appointment Buddy was born. The app aims to support an ill individual and their caregivers by making it easy to share information from doctors and medical staff. A key element is a simple interface that allows for note taking, photo sharing, audio recording, with no complicated logins and messy email attaching maneuvers, to share with family members and others.

After a year of treatment Jean’s father’s died in 2009.  Soon after, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, receiving medical care through most of 2012.  The newly wedded couple used their freshly minted product to help Jean’s mom, who lives on Texas and 22nd streets with Jean’s sister.

Now the couple share an office – more like two desks in a larger space with a construction company and other freelancers – in the co-working workplace NextSpace Potrero, located at Vermont and 17th streets. Their two and a half year old daughter, Julianna, attends daycare in an adjacent building.  They launched Appointment Buddy four years ago from their Third Street condominium, moving to NextSpace in 2013.

Jean is a Potrero Hill native who grew up on the same plot of land where her Third Street condo now stands.  She attended Lowell High School, commuting on Muni from Dogpatch, when the neighborhood was just another part of Potrero. The building in which she was raised had a large backyard; the lot was developed into condominiums. Her family received a condo in exchange for giving the land to developers.  

“I’ve seen our neighborhood change a lot around us,” Jean said.  What used to be the “not-so-nice side of the Hill” is now one of the City’s trendiest neighborhoods.  She realized she could be part of the tech boom, rather than resent the new ideas, money and people that were changing her hometown. She wanted to use tech to make a difference.

Palmer noted that medical technology platforms are becoming more widely available but need more development. He saw a call for user research that uncovers the experience of patients and those around them. Dogpatch Tech has honed in on this space, talking to patients, family members, doctors, oncologists, support groups and others to learn how technology can improve their medical lives. Palmer said he constantly has to remember his “healthy privilege” and how that affects their work.

“There’s no shortage of ways to help people with the tools to give help,” Jean said about mobile health technology. Their first app has been used throughout the world, including in Australia, Germany and Singapore. Users can take a voice recording when meeting with a doctor and share the soundtrack, as well as any annotated notes or questions, with a sibling or spouse, who may not have been able to attend the meeting. Jean and Palmer stressed the value of the app’s audio portion, especially when complicated and scary medical terms start flying. Families can review information that may have been overlooked at an initial, usually overwhelming, medical discussion.

This summer the young company, which includes six contractors whom Jean and Palmer hope will turn into full-time employees soon, will release a private beta of a new app. Details about the yet-to-be-named product are in stealth mode, but the concept revolves around scaffolding patients’ support networks. Oftentimes caregivers don’t know how to deal with offers of, or how to ask for, help, something Jean experienced first-hand when caring for her late father and then mother, 72, who survived the cancer and is in remission. 

“After being there for both my parents I wanted to build something that could help patients and caregivers,” Jean said. “We realized we wanted to build something to make friends and family a better and more effective support system.” The co-founders are also working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a version of the new app for suicidal veterans.

By focusing their product on support networks, Jean and Palmer hope to expand mobile tech beyond tools tailored primarily for hospitals and doctors. Under the Affordable Care Act, signed by President Obama in 2010, medical facilities must use electronic health records, which has spurred an increase in mobile and Web-based resources. 

“We want to be the tool everyone recommends,” Jean said.