Dan Sheeran currently serves as the CEO of HealthSlate, a company geared towards providing evidence-based digital diabetes prevention. Dan also serves as a board member on The Council for Diabetes Prevention in Washington D.C.
Can you shine light into your backstory and how your journey has led you to HealthSlate?
I was raised in a family in which mission-focused careers were the expected path. My three siblings are all doctors or government lawyers. I briefly worked in politics and journalism out of college and then realized I would be a better fit on the business side of the media. That ultimately led me to digital media, where I eventually ran a number of divisions at RealNetworks, including the Rhapsody music service. As I was approaching 40 I felt a strong desire to move back to something more mission-oriented, which ultimately led me to co-found HealthSlate.
What is HealthSlate and why have you chosen to pursue a career in healthcare technology?
I wanted to apply what I’d learned in digital consumer products in a manner that would help people live healthier lives.
This ultimately led me to focus on diabetes, obesity and related metabolic conditions. HealthSlate is a leading digital provider of the diabetes prevention program, which is an evidence-based approach to losing weight and increasing physical activity in a sustainable manner.
What does the health industry have to gain from the advances being made in instant messaging and social media?
There are many roles now performed by humans in the delivery of behavior change programs that humans are clearly best equipped to provide, such as emotional support and exploration of underlying challenges.
However, there’s also a huge amount of basic factual information transfer that now often requires humans. That information can be delivered more quickly and at much lower cost using messaging interfaces. The bot is always available and has access to your entire health history. We also suspect there are certain types of questions that at least some clients would prefer to ask a bot than a human.
What does the design process look like at HealthSlate? How long does it take something to grow from an idea to a fully implemented feature?
Our bots are built on the shoulders of a lot of previous technology we have already developed. This makes it possible to create the bot-based version of a feature typically in a few weeks. We have also developed some core features from the ground up that have required several months, such as our QnA service.
Healthcare is constantly evolving. How do you navigate such a complicated space?
I’d love to say that we only follow the users, and we certainly do follow their lead, but, in healthcare, if you are not extremely clear on how you will get paid then you will run out of oxygen fast.
To accommodate that dilemma, we also spend a lot of time navigating health insurers and other healthcare “payers.”
Which types of conversational interfaces are you working with?
We have a rich Alexa based weight loss skill and a chatbot that’s being developed for our own app as well as third-party platforms like FB Messenger and Slack.
Are you using those interfaces to help doctors /or patients /or researchers?
Only to help patients/clients.
Why did you choose to use a conversational interface to help patients?
At a practical level, the most important component of our intervention is the relationship the client develops with their health coach or clinician. That dialog happens today largely via messaging, and hence supplementing that messaging with bot messaging was an obvious choice once we saw what bots can now do.
As we explored it, we came to realize that conversational interfaces are more intuitive for people than “traditional” mobile app interfaces, and hence can make our programs accessible to a broader range of users. We also feel that by integrating with conversational platforms people already use we can get messages to them and from them in a more convenient, organic way than has been the case via mobile apps.
What is something that has surprised you since beginning to work in this space?
The Alexa explosion has really surprised us, while also reassuring us that we’re on the right track.
Why do you think healthcare professionals should experiment with a conversational interface?
Everyone in healthcare is under enormous pressure to do more with less, and conversational software makes that possible when done right. However…
When healthcare professionals cross the line and ask the bot to do things that the patient or client rightly expect to be handled by a human, they will face serious backlash.
My suggestion to those looking to approach the space for the first time would be to start with something simple and not related to the client’s personal health situation. (scheduling appointments)
Degrees: MBA, Finance Marketing 1994 – Northwestern University
B.S. Foreign Service 1988 – Georgetown University
PPE Politics, Philosophy & Economics – University of Oxford
This is the third installation of our Design the Future interview series. If you’ve enjoyed reading, you should check out our interview featuring Elaine Lee who is leading product design for AI-enabled assistants at eBay. Then, head over for an interview with Michael Natkin detailing managing teams in technology and the adoption of a conversational interface. Stay tuned each Monday as we continue to explore the evolving world of conversational design.