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The Franklin-based health care company AdhereHealth is analyzing data from insurance plans to identify people at high risk of contracting the new coronavirus, and intervening to help them stay healthy. 

AdhereHealth normally focuses on helping people take their medications appropriately. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 50% of all medications are used appropriately, resulting in 125,000 deaths each year.

The Franklin company works to solve this problem by analyzing data from health care plans and identifying people who may have trouble sticking with their medication. In many cases, patients have trouble sticking with their medication routine because they can’t afford drugs, want to avoid unpleasant side effects or because they don’t understand the medicine. 

Normally, clinicians from AdhereHealth call patients to check in, asking whether there are any barriers preventing them from taking prescribed medications, such as access to food, housing or the drugs themselves. The company directs patients to resources, available through a health care plan or in the community, to overcome those obstacles. 

Starting in February, AdhereHealth CEO Jason Rose said those phone calls started to get a lot longer. Call lengths doubled over the last few months as patients have expressed anxieties about the new coronavirus pandemic.

"We were already talking with them about their anxieties, health literacy issues and access issues, but ... the COVID virus started getting into the conversation. It's on everyone's mind, especially those who are highly vulnerable,” Rose said. “There was an outpouring of concern.”

An increasing number of patients wanted to use AdhereHealth’s specialized courier pharmacy because they didn’t want to go out. Clinicians also reported many conversations about depression or suicide. At that point, leaders at AdhereHealth decided they needed to create a system to address the coronavirus pandemic. 

The company’s new coronavirus project still focuses on improving adherence to prescription medications. The goal is to keep patients with underlying conditions as healthy as possible so they are less vulnerable during the pandemic. Rose said he believes that people who are not taking prescribed medications are more likely to get sick from the new coronavirus.

"The pandemic impact could be mitigated if patients took their drugs and had access to them and understood them" he said.

According to the CDC, about 90% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have underlying conditions, such as obesity, hypertension or chronic lung disease. Many of those people with underlying conditions take daily medications, and the CDC lists continuing that medication as an important way to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Ultimately, AdhereHealth’s work during the coronavirus pandemic looks very similar to the work it normally does. The company analyzes data to identify people with underlying conditions who may be at risk for contracting the new coronavirus. A clinician makes a phone call to make sure they have access to medications, food and shelter. 

The coronavirus pandemic has added new barriers to properly taking drugs. Rose said older people, or people with underlying conditions, may feel nervous about going to a pharmacy or a doctor because they don’t want to leave the house. In addition, millions of people have lost work because of the virus outbreak, making it harder to afford medicine. 

In December 2018, AdhereHealth acquired a pharmacy so it can deliver medication directly to customers in daily packaging to make it easier to stick with a schedule. That service is proving especially useful now that patients may not want to leave the house to get drugs.

“They may not even be going to the hospital because they're petrified to go there. They can't leave their house to get their medications or see their doctor,” Rose said. 

AdhereHealth was already expanding quickly before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States, but the virus outbreak has fueled even more growth. Over the last six months, the number of employees has increased from about 600 to more than 1,000. 

The company also recently started working with some commercial insurance plans, in addition to the Medicare and Medicaid plans it was already working with. Rose said the number of patients the company analyzes has increased from between 8 and 10 million last year to 30 almost million this year.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the improper use of medication caused enormous health problems in the United States. Roses said that socioeconomic factors like housing, access to food and transportation are some of the most important reasons people don’t properly take medications. 

"The people who are being most afflicted are those who were already at highest risk before the pandemic,” he said. “Now, sadly it's even worse."

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