The United States has more than 58 million teens and young adults, many of whom are struggling with their physical and psychosocial health. We’ve recently seen this crisis dramatically increase during COVID-19 with the rise in mental health issues including anxiety, hopelessness, and sadness as well as an increase in prediabetes due to physical inactivity and other factors. This generation, Generation Z (Gen Z), relies on their smartphones for information, so any effective approach for the healthcare ecosystem to help address these challenges must start there.
Where it all began
After 30 years of working as a product and data innovation leader in the health tech sector, I decided it was time to tackle this challenge head on and launched Uneo in December 2021. The approach was to create a simple, free, gamified app for Gen Z that provides them with in-app experiences to track and manage their health as well as importantly create digital connections to community and national resources to get them the help they need. At the start of 2022, the goal was to have a minimal viable product in the hands of Gen Z by the end of Q2 and this milestone has been accomplished.
Building the team
As a bootstrapped start-up, we are thinking lean. This journey started with myself and my co-founder, my son, who after 2 years at NYU moved back home to focus full time on computer science. We partnered with University of Maryland, where through a colleague of mine (Dr. Gordon Gao), we were able to get the support from several talented computer science students to help in the development of the app and provide UI/UX support. Through another contact, we were able to collaborate with UCLA’s Dr. Janet Tomiyama to get the support from students who are studying nutrition and other behavioral health sciences to assist in identifying the right evidence-based content – an all Gen-Z team.
We also partnered with two local high schools to enlist the help of STEM and other students representing a diverse set of teens in both race and gender (as self-identified) to provide user feedback. Guiding the ship was the creation of an experienced Advisory Board of tech, clinical, and business leaders that I have worked with over the years to keep us on track and to be a sounding board for our approach.
Building a business
For decades, I have watched health plans, health systems, providers, governments, and other organizations attempt to engage youth on their healthcare initiatives using traditional approaches (Note: rarely do Gen Z’ers read mail, email, answer the phone, or go to portals). The Uneo team realized that by providing a more effective and efficient engagement solution that meets the youth where they are and creates a bi-directional “stickiness,” we can help these organizations drive down both operational costs and avoidable healthcare spend. While the app was being evaluated and built with our Gen Z team and user groups, Uneo’s business focused on developing partnerships with leading academic, non-profit, and other health tech businesses to clarify product market fit as well as position our app to scale nationally beyond the Washington D.C. – Baltimore area.
Creating an engaging platform
The development was guided by our Gen Z user groups and several common themes stood out: personalization, simplicity, more buttons – less to read and write, and something that works for those who are “living in the moment.” To that end, we built an app that uses digital nudges and check-ins to bring them into the app where they can use easy-to-follow tools to de-stress or explore other wellness areas including curated health-focused videos that are guided by evidence-based principals covering areas such as anxiety, physical activity, building a healthy relationship with food, addictions, LGBTQ+, and health equity. This is provided intentionally as a model that looks and feels more like a social media platform.
The app supports bi-directional communication between their care provider or care team that is consumer directed. Additionally, given our focus on the underserved community, our solution provides resources to address many social determinant of health challenges, health equity, and digital equity.
Our current focus – the prediabetes crisis
As a member of the regional American Diabetes Association board and with the mostly unpublicized crisis of an increasing rate of prediabetes (one in five Gen Z’ers and one in four for non-white youth), the Uneo team is taking on this challenge head-on with pilots starting this summer. Providing a platform for these 11 million youth is going to require innovative partnerships and a thoughtful approach.
This population focus aligns with our broader mission to work with care providers and other stakeholders to provide the tools and resources that address psychosocial drivers that may exacerbate their prediabetes as well as help them build a healthy relationship with food and encourage them to stay active. We recognize that we must work with our teens and young adults in a holistic approach – mind and body, not separate one from the other.
So, we are off and running, and we are learning and innovating along the way. This journey has been incredibly rewarding and when we are successful, we will have improved the lives of so many – and provided the ecosystem with a solution that is sorely needed.