Digital Health Age speaks to Eliran Malki, co-founder and CEO of Belong.Life – an app for cancer patients which can connect them with medical professionals and fellow cancer patients. The app has recently surpassed 120,000 users worldwide with users being offered medical advice and support. Digital Health Age speaks to Eliran Maki about how the idea came about, future plans and whether it would be suitable for use by the NHS in the UK among other things.
Q: Can you tell us where you got the idea from to start Belong?
A: The idea behind Belong came from personal loss. My grandfather and aunt both lost their battles to cancer, and three years ago, I had a conversation over dinner with some friends about our mutual experiences in losing loved ones to cancer. We are all entrepreneurs with tech backgrounds, and I got this idea: instead of investing in developing faster computers or new financial analytics, we could apply our skills and tech experience to improve the way patients and physicians manage their cancer journey. Belong.Life was born, and it quickly grew into the world’s fastest-growing and largest mobile social network for cancer patients and caregivers. Today we have more than 120,000 global users.
Q: Could you explain how the app works?
A: Belong is a free app that provides direct access to top medical professionals from hospitals across the world, including New York-based Mount Sinai and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “Belongers” (a cancer patient who uses the Belong app) can ask these oncologists and medical professionals about treatment, side effects and other matters of urgency.
Belong also uses a robust message board platform, where participants speak openly – and anonymously – about matters of concern while they navigate their disease and treatment. There are hundreds of message boards in the app, with topics ranging from every specific type of cancer imaginable, to frank discussions about sexual intimacy during and after treatment. Nutrition, exercise, and tips for coping with side effects are also popular topics of discussion.
We also provide a clinical trial matching program based on where a person using the app is located and conduct voluntary surveys about a variety of cancer-related topics that are based on user experience. These surveys often blossom into larger research initiatives that benefit the wider medical communities in the fight against cancer.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received from users of the app?
A: Feedback from Belongers has been extremely positive, which is why our number of users have swelled to over 120,000 from around the globe. One story we like to share, is when a Belonger wrote us a heartfelt thank you note, saying that Belong saved his life. He was being treated for a cancer he didn’t have, and he realised this with the help of our app!
In fact, thousands of Belongers have thanked us for the app. That means they have taken the time to personally thank us for providing a platform for them to connect with others, find crucial information, matching them with clinical trials, and in some cases, potentially saving their lives. It has made Belong one of the most rewarding things I have been involved in in my life. We have also had recent app reviews from websites like Appolicious and iPhone Glance have also been overwhelmingly positive. User reviews in the GooglePlay Store and the iTunes Store are 4.7 and 4.8 out of 5, respectively.
Q: Can you explain the importance of a cancer patient having access to a support or networking service such as Belong?
A: We fill an urgent need for both cancer patients and caregivers, which is a comprehensive tool that provides everything they need to navigate the complexities of their cancer journey. Instead of a fragmented experience where they need to access various resources and search high and low for information that pertains to their specific diagnosis or unique circumstance, at Belong, it’s all in one central place. Using our advanced machine learning platform, information is also delivered in a hyper-personalised way.
Belong also has the benefit of providing a social and emotional support network with others dealing with cancer. While traditional cancer support groups are important, Belong allows for anonymity and access to support anytime and anywhere. Digital communities are now a part of how we build important social groups and network these days, and a cancer support network that can be accessed from the comfort of one’s own home at any time is a crucial aspect of how people are navigating the emotional, psychological and physical aspects of the cancer journey.
Q: Do you have any plans to develop the app further?
A: Belong has recently partnered with the American Cancer Society (ACS), Colorectal Cancer Canada and other organisation. Since partnering with ACS, their closed member forum on the app has generated millions of interactions. We are also working towards partnerships with more payers and providers to deliver tailored solutions to their users, and connect Belong to PHR (personal health record) systems
Belong also conducts research and collaborates with leading universities and institutions. We recently published a research at ESMO (The European Society of Oncology) on coping with fatigue. This is in addition to our research published in June with ASCO (The American Society of Clinical Oncology).
Q: Which parts of the world is Belong likely to be most prevalent?
A: Belong is currently available globally. The majority of our users are in the U.S. and Europe, in addition to some in Asia.
Q: Is this app used/could this app be used by the NHS in the UK?
A: Definitely. Our research with The Segal Cancer Centre and McGill University, which was published in Stanford in August, shows that providers who worked with Belong and treatment templates for ovarian cancer patients improved the experience of patients navigating the healthcare system. Our solution helps patients and their families be better prepared for treatment, requiring fewer visits and discussions and automating a large part of care services. This helps improve patient adherence, creates more awareness and reduces exposure to mistakes or infections at hospitals, ultimately contributing to improved outcomes and satisfaction.
Q: What support can Belong offer after someone has successfully completed their treatment?
A: Among Belong’s user base, are cancer survivors who have been very eager to help other app users who are facing similar challenges. The support and tips that they provide help others get through their issues. Survivors are an inspiration in these cases, which in turn, is a very fulfilling experience for them. We now have a growing community of Belongers who are in remission or finished treatment, and they are choosing to remain active in order to help others. We see that this provides great value for our community.