Vancouver-based Thrive Health views happiness as central to health care

Early data suggests that happiness levels have a greater effect on health care outcomes than whether a person smokes

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      The best way to build a business is to surround yourself with talented individuals. That task becomes significantly easier when those people are your immediate family.

      In late 2006, entrepreneur David Helliwell created his first company: Pulse Energy. Built with the mission of reducing the impact of climate change, the business used big data to analyze energy consumption and demand. After selling the organization in 2014, he took a sabbatical before returning to Vancouver to cofound his second venture.

      The work of his newest company, Thrive Health (previously New Hippo Health), seems like a logical path forward for the businessman. Helliwell’s father, John Helliwell, is the co-editor of the annual World Happiness Report, a UN–sanctioned document that surveys the well-being of 156 countries and ranks them accordingly. His brother, James Helliwell, is a cardiac anesthesiologist and former president of the B.C. Anesthesiologists’ Society. Thrive Health draws a little bit from each of them.

      “We really wanted to do something that was personally important to us in terms of making the Canadian health care system work better,” he tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “And to come at it from a patient perspective, where we had experiences where things had been pretty hit-and-miss for getting specialist care.”

      Thrive Health aims to democratize health care using algorithms. The company has created customizable questionnaires that patients fill out to identify their health and risk factors, and can determine which people are in greatest need of treatment. As well as levelling the playing field for hospital admissions, information from the surveys can also be utilized for follow-ups after appointments or surgeries, and offer each patient a care plan that’s tailored to them.

      Where Thrive Health differs most from other questionnaire-based services, however, is its emphasis on quantifying and improving patient happiness in order to boost health outcomes.

      “We’re really focused on how we can help patients go through a health care journey and thrive,” David Helliwell says. “That means understanding their happiness and well-being, and giving them extra tools to help with that. The problem with physical and mental health is that our entire system is built around fixing things once they’re broken, rather than around making things work well. We all feel happy or not for some reason, and understanding what those happiness levels are is a really important indicator for how resilient people are going to be. It’s fascinating, because the early data suggests that your level of happiness is more important to your health care outcome than whether you smoke or not.”

      On June 11, Thrive Health launched a care plan called Enhance, which was developed by two leading positive psychologists in the U.S. The steps it lays out have been shown to increase productivity, happiness, and sleep—and, Helliwell suggests, better health outcomes.

      “Happiness seems like something that can’t be quantified,” he says. “But the great thing is, you just ask people. There’s been decades of research from millions of people around the world, and that’s the foundation of the world happiness measurement, or, as it’s also called, subjective well-being. That number is well validated objectively—we know that as happiness levels go down, suicide levels go up.…It’s a lot simpler [to measure] than people think.”

      So far, the company has clocked more than 7,000 patients using its questionnaires to prepare for surgery in hospitals including Vancouver's St. Paul’s. Implementing the surveys has sped up the referral of individuals to the follow-up and recovery stages.

      “[Reducing the workload of doctors] is obviously a perfect thing for software to be able to solve by pulling together bits and pieces of data,” David Helliwell says. “We’re different because we rely on a lot of patient-entered information, when typically there are not a lot of avenues for patients to have their say. Each person is empowered to play a bigger role in their own health care.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays