Q&A: Helping to digitise GP visits and tackling joint pain

Jakob Dahlberg, CEO of Joint Academy, talks to Med-Tech Innovation News about its digital offering and how it assists the NHS. 

First, tell us about Joint Academy and where the idea came from? 

Joint Academy connects patients with licensed physiotherapists to deliver online treatments for chronic joint and back pain, all through an app.

My father, MD Leif Dahlberg, is a senior professor in orthopaedics and has spent the past 35 years researching ways to treat chronic joint pain. He co-initiated a treatment program that’s today the national standard of care for treating joint pain in Sweden, and Joint Academy has digitised and improved that very treatment.

We’re addressing a gigantic problem. Joint and back pain are some of the fastest growing and costliest illnesses of our time. Nine million people in the UK alone live with it. Research shows that regular physiotherapy in combination with information about the condition is enough for most people to alleviate pain and restore movement, but most people with joint pain don’t get the physiotherapy treatment they need to get better.

There are many reasons for this. It has normally taken too much time out of people’s day to get to a clinic and just getting an appointment might take weeks or even months, particularly now, during the pandemic. Treating joint pain isn’t something that’s done just once, it needs to be done consistently over time.

That’s why we built Joint Academy. We bring joint and back pain treatment straight to people through their phones, making it more accessible for patients while bringing costs down for healthcare systems.

Tell us about the technology behind your treatment programme?

Sweden is known for its state-of-the-art care when it comes to chronic joint pain treatment — the very treatment that my father co-initiated fifteen years ago. Where other countries’ incidences of total joint replacements are rapidly increasing, Sweden’s are stagnating in comparison.

With Joint Academy, we have digitised Sweden’s national standard of care for joint pain treatment and essentially made it better, cheaper, and more accessible. Since it’s all done through your phone, you have constant access to your physiotherapist, your treatment plan, and your progress tracking tools wherever you go. The app sends you reminders every day to do the exercises your physiotherapist has prescribed, and your physio is always available through chat or video calls to give you the support you need.

We’ve also launched Groups, a social network in the app where people with joint pain can meet others in a similar situation, set joint goals and motivate each other. By building in nudging and support through the app, we see much greater medical outcomes than what traditional, face-to-face care can achieve.

What have the effects been both in terms of on the patient, and in the NHS?

We’ve seen a huge uptake of Joint Academy’s treatments and last year alone we treated more than 50,000 patients. Our treatment models are heavily researched, and we’ve been published in more than ten peer-reviewed studies. 85% of our patients say that their pain is reduced after just six weeks in our treatment and one randomised controlled trial, done by researchers at the University of Nottingham, showed that our treatment model, by far, outperforms face-to-face care. Where patients in Joint Academy’s treatment reduced their pain by 41%, people in traditional care reduced their pain by just 6%. Our own data also shows that 80% of our patients adhere to the treatment plan, which results in great medical outcomes.

Our treatment is used by NHS Highland in Scotland in a project to help preoperative patients. We know that many of our patients who previously wanted surgery opt-out after being in our treatment, so we’re very excited to be able to help Scottish patients and hope to have more data from the project sometime soon.

What kinds of joint or chronic pain can this help address?

We currently offer treatment for chronic pain of the hip, knee, hand, neck, back, and shoulder.

Is there scope for expanding the offering further?

Absolutely. We’re just at the beginning of our journey. We started with treatments for chronic hip and knee pain but we’re now approaching full MSK. The physiotherapy space, in general, is very exciting and there’s lots more that we can do to help more people restore their movement.

Anything else you would like to add?

Digital healthcare has so far mainly focused on digitising GP visits. There’s so much more that can be done to digitise treatments as opposed to GP visits. I personally believe that we’ll see a lot more innovation in this space over the next few years and that it will completely change how we look at healthcare.

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