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Bariatric product key for software firm's growth: Former WellPoint execs heading up young company

November 12, 2007

Medical Animatics LLC hopes its latest product helps double its size while helping patients shrink theirs.

The small Indianapolis firm plans to roll out bariatric-education software by yearend. By tapping the popular surgery procedure, Medical Animatics' officers hope that product grows sales enough to double its nine-person work force in a year.

The new product launch is the first major initiative for Medical Animatics since it secured angel investments from two former WellPoint Inc. officers earlier this year. Jane Niederberger and Barb Kew also became Medical Animatics' chairwoman and vice chairwoman, respectively, on July 1.

"This is a tool that's going to help doctors deliver things better," Niederberger said in an interview. She added, "We share that same information [as other education programs], but we give the visual and the animation to make it more understandable."

Niederberger and Kew brought their combined 55 years of experiences in the health care and health insurance industries to Medical Animatics, a company less than 3 years old. Its CEO, Harlon Wilson, met Niederberger as an intern at WellPoint while attending the Indiana University School of Informatics.

The three of them have aimed Medical Animatics directly at a burgeoning market. Since 1998, the number of bariatric surgeries performed in the United States has spiked from fewer than 14,000 to about 200,000, according to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery. Increasingly, bariatric surgery is used to help patients conquer hefty weight and obesity, the complications of which account for $117 billion in annual medical spending.

Medical Animatics thinks it can tap a sliver of that market by selling a Web-based program that educates, quizzes and secures so-called "informed consent" from patients before they undergo the procedure. Health care providers are legally required to educate patients about the process and risks of any medical procedure and receive their written consent to perform it.

"This will be a much larger effort" than any current product, said Wilson, 38. Already, Medical Animatics makes an educational product about corrective eye surgery. It also makes sports training software for USA Diving and health education programs for schools.

Dr. Jack Ditslear, a bariatric surgeon at Community Hospital North, has helped Medical Animatics develop its bariatric product. He noted three features that are improvements over the PowerPoint seminar his office staff now gives patients.

First, Medical Animatics' three-dimensional, computer animations more clearly show how bariatric surgery alters a stomach's form and functions.

Second, Medical Animatics' Web-based software asks questions of patients as they proceed through its various chapters. If a patient answers a question wrong, the program will replay the relevant section until the patient answers the question correctly.

"When we talk to them, we can go over those points," Ditslear said.

Third, because the hour-long bariatric program is Web-based, patients can view it at a doctor's office or at their home.

If it works like the eye surgery program Medical Animatics made for Price Vision Group, the bariatric product could save doctors time and, perhaps, persuade a few more patients to opt for the surgery.

Tony Sterrett, practice administrator at Price Vision, 9002 N. Meridian St., said both Medical Animatics' product and an older computer-animated program it replaced have saved Price's doctors about 25 minutes per patient they previously spent explaining the procedure and answering questions.

In addition, Sterrett believes-although he can't quantify it-that the education program's slick animation leads patients to conclude that the surgery is state-of-the-art, too.

"It demonstrates to the patient that the doctor's office is on the cutting edge of technology," Sterrett said. "I'm sure there's an increase in the number of patients that go for the surgery [because of the product]."

After the bariatric product, Medical Animatics will move on to other procedures. Its leaders are thinking about developing educational programs for corneal transplants and cataract operations, since the nation's aging demographics will likely boost the number of such procedures.

"One of our biggest challenges, obviously, is prioritizing," Kew said. Before coming to Medical Animatics, she most recently had been the vice president in information technology for WellPoint.

Niederberger ended her time at Well-Point as its vice president and general manager of operations for its central region. She had previously been the chief information officer for WellPoint's predecessor, Anthem Inc.
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