Hero partners with Navajo Nation group to get elders to take medication

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Hero Health has created a machine that automatically dispenses medication to seniors who can’t remember to do it themselves. And now it has partnered with the grassroots group Protect Native Elders to help older Native Americans with their medications.

New York-based Hero has created a smart pill dispenser, which enables elders to take the right dosage of a pill at the time needed. Its screen tells the elder if they don’t have to take another pill yet. A caregiver can monitor the adherence from afar through a medication management app that receives updates from the dispenser.

With 50% of U.S. medication not taken as prescribed, Hero’s donation extends its vision to address both the barriers to health care and the needs of vulnerable populations, said Kal Vepuri, founder and CEO of Hero, in an interview with VentureBeat.

Helping a nonprofit

Above: Hero makes a smart medication dispenser that can be monitored from afar.

Protect Native Elders is a grassroots Native-led organization that provides rapid support to Native American communities in COVID-19 hotspots, bringing health care technology to the Navajo Nation free of charge, said Val Tsosie, distribution lead and eldercare adviser at Protect Native Elders, in an interview.

The all-volunteer team is focused on personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical supply relief, advocacy programs, and initiatives involving such resources as food and water to support indigenous sovereignty. Since its founding in late March 2020, Protect Native Elders has distributed more than $1.3 million in supplies to more than 70 tribal communities across the continent.

Dmitri Novomeiski, cofounder of Protect Native Elders, helped start it to bring resources to communities that were underserved and underresourced. He said in a statement that Hero will help restore some balance.

Tsosie believes the donation will help prevent unnecessary trips to the hospital for elders who have trouble sorting out and taking their medications.

Tsosie, who is based in Window Rock, Arizona, said the all-volunteer group has helped step in to help elders even as many tribal government operations shut down during the pandemic. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the Navajo reservation, and getting services to them isn’t easy.

“This machine is helping caregivers alleviate a lot of that stress because you worry you worry if they’re going to take their medicine,” she said. “They’re losing their memory. This medication management machine is very near and dear to my heart to help our caregivers.”

Hero’s donation will cover 100% of subscription costs for three years, providing 50 Navajo Nation members with its full suite of features, including a smart pill dispenser, medication management app, automatic prescription refill and delivery, and 24/7 live support. The Hero subscription also includes caregiver features, including alerts if a loved one misses a dose.

Origins

Hero was founded on the premise of removing barriers — costs, access, human behavior, policies, etc. — that get between people and their health, Vepuri said.

“Hero is my life’s work,” said Vepuri. “I started working on it back in 2015. Back when my mother who was a physician, a geriatrician herself, started struggling with multiple chronic conditions. You would think a physician would be able to handle any level of medication complexity. But when it comes down to it, when you’re taking more than five meds, it becomes a full-time job pretty quickly, particularly depending on how complex your chronic disease conditions are.”

His mother suffered a heart attack, and she thankfully recovered. But she had some hospital readmissions that could have avoided had Hero existed at the time, Vepuri said.

“The hardware helps create an objective point of truth for the automated sorting and dispensing and on device reminders that are both visual and audible,” Vepuri said. “But it also removes a lot of the friction points that that caregivers have to struggle with. So it gives them notifications when needed, it helps them understand when inventories are running low of any medications, or you’re running out of refills.”

Vepuri fortunately had the wherewithal to get Hero off the ground. He is a seed-stage adviser and angel investor in over 175 companies such as Oscar, Clover, and Quip. He cofounded Hero to create frictionless solutions to the most challenging problems facing patients and caregivers.

Since launching in 2018, Hero has dispensed over 50 million pills in every U.S. state. Hero is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medical device.

It took three years of engineering to get the product right. Vepuri created Hero as a product, a subscription service, a company, and a brand.

“We have been able to positively affect tens of thousands of lives every day,” he said. “We’re growing very quickly across the country. As part of that process of just growing and spending more time with marginalized communities, and trying to understand how we could get Hero to penetrate those communities and become as accessible as possible, we learned that the Navajo Nation and other Native American communities were really negatively impacted by COVID.”

The service that goes with it is popular among members with heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, multiple sclerosis, mental health conditions, Parkinson’s, and other chronic ailments that require complicated medication regimens.

To accommodate Navajo Nation caregivers and elders struggling with stress and juggling multiple medications, Hero provided a practical medication management solution.

The struggle to manage medications touches nearly everyone taking prescription drugs. On average, only half of medications are taken as prescribed, according to the CDC. Not taking prescriptions as directed, known as medication nonadherence, accounts for an estimated 125,000 premature deaths in the U.S. and as much as $300 billion in avoidable health care costs. In comparison, Hero members have achieved a median adherence rate of 98% — a rate that Hero hopes to bring about for members of the Navajo Nation.

The company has grown to more than 100 employees.

Hero has an initial fee of $100 and it costs $30 a month. Hero itself can function without the internet, but one of the challenges in poor communities is that Hero requires an internet connection to deliver remote updates to caregivers. That is something that other companies and nonprofits have to help with.

A hard-hit community

Above: Hero dispenses the right medication at the right time.

The Navajo Nation has long experienced significant barriers to health care — largely due to chronic underfunding and a lack of access to resources. The pandemic further exacerbated these issues, with the Navajo tribe having faced some of the highest rates in the U.S.

In a recent study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the COVID-19 death rate was highest among American Indian or Alaska Native persons — more than any other ethnic group in the United States.

In conjunction with this initiative, So’ Tsoh Foundation conducted a survey among seniors and caregivers in the community that found both elders and caregivers have felt more socially isolated since the COVID-19 pandemic began — 82% and 66% respectively.

Additionally, despite three out of four caregivers reporting their stress level was impacted by caring for a loved one during the pandemic, 75% did not hire or ask for additional help to care for their loved one. Moreover, 76% of elders take more than three medications a day, and 23.5% of those elders take more than six medications a day.

Despite the help from Hero, there is still a “humongous” need for help in taking care of the elders, Tsosie said.

“When COVID came, it really broke my heart,” she said.

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