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Northeastern ‘Disruptivator’ wants to improve musculoskeletal health

07/07/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Lauren Jarmusz, BHS'15/PhD'16, is studying for her doctorate in physical therapy and recently co-founded a startup called Physiocare. The startup, which is not yet up and running, aims to connect patients with physical therapists via a mobile app. Once connected, the physical therapist would perform a thorough musculoskeletal exam on the patient and then design a personalized exercise rehab routine, schedule follow up appointments, or set them up with a trainer. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

After the fall 2014 semester, Lauren Jarmusz returned home to Buffalo, New York, to visit her family. Her father—an outdoorsman partial to hiking, fishing, and camping—had torn his rotator cuff while landscaping and was recovering from shoulder surgery. The injury limited his mobility, Jarmusz noticed, and precluded him from indulging in his favorite hobbies. As a result of his inactivity, he developed lower back pain and soon thereafter started physical therapy for the second time. But he has yet to fully recover—and he probably never will.

Jarmusz, BHS’15, DPT’16, resolved to investigate the ins and outs of her dad’s injury. Why, this physical therapy doctoral candidate wanted to know, did an otherwise healthy, active, middle-aged man unexpectedly develop such searing shoulder pain? And could it have been prevented?

The answer, Jarmusz discovered through research and classwork, was a resounding yes. “My father could have prevented his injury,” she explains, “if he had received the proper guidance for his musculoskeletal health.”

The business is born

In the spring, Jarmusz turned her words into action, founding Physiocare, a healthcare startup aimed at connecting people with doctors who specialize in musculoskeletal health. She and cofounder Marquis Cabrera, SSH’11, are currently recruiting people for closed beta testing and plan to open up the service to the general public by early 2016.

Here’s how it will work: The patient will download the Physiocare app and then sign up for a comprehensive musculoskeletal exam. A well-qualified physical therapist will conduct the assessment, which will focus on muscle strength as well as gait, balance, and range of motion, and then develop a personalized care plan. Depending on the patient’s goals and impairments, the therapist will prescribe periodic follow-up exams, connect him with a personal trainer, or refer him to a specialized physical therapist.

The service will initially be available to patients in Boston. Jarmusz plans to partner with local fitness facilities, using their spaces to conduct the exams in exchange for bringing in potential clients. And while the target audience will be adults age 30 to 65, parents of active children and competitive athletes alike have also expressed interest in the app.

The power of physical activity

The numbers tell the story, painting a clear picture of need: 126 million adults suffer from debilitating musculoskeletal conditions, according to the United States Bone and Joint Initiative, and 2.5 million children suffer from chronic musculoskeletal pain. The annual cost for treatment and lost wages due to musculoskeletal diseases, disorders, and injuries is $874 billion—or 5.7 percent GDP.

Jarmusz thinks Physiocare, which will strive to prevent injury before chronic problems crop up, could work to improve overall health and wellness. Her personalized care plans, she says, will be focused on physical activity, which is proven to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

“Many of today’s patients are struggling with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, increased stress and fatigue, diabetes, mild depression, and metabolic syndrome,” she says. “If one exercises regularly, all of these comorbidities can be avoided.”

The ‘Disruptivator’

Physiocare is gaining traction among prospective patients, healthcare professionals, and angel investors alike. In May, for instance, Jarmusz was named one of four “Healthcare Disruptivators to Watch” at a conference sponsored by the New England Innovation Center, the New Hampshire-based startup accelerator.

Physical therapists in attendance praised the startup’s focus on prevention, while one investor noted that orthopedic surgeons would love the app because it would weed out patients who don’t need surgery. “It’s a great application that would take a lot off their plates,” the investor told Jarmusz, “allowing them to write out referrals instead of performing operations.”

Potential patients are also intrigued. According to Jarmusz’s recent survey of prospective clients, 90 percent of respondents expressed interest in using the one-of-a-kind service. “I don’t know of any other app that connects patients to physical therapists for proactive preventative care,” she says. “We really have a big opportunity here to help people strengthen their bodies and prevent injuries.”

 A well-qualified Doctor of Physical Therapy will conduct the musculoskeletal assessment, which will focus on muscle strength as well as gait, balance, and range of motion, and then develop a personalized care plan. Photo by iStock.

A well-qualified Doctor of Physical Therapy will conduct the musculoskeletal assessment, which will focus on muscle strength as well as gait, balance, and range of motion. Photo by iStock.

The experiential edge

Jarmusz’s particular focus on sussing out customer needs stems from advice she received from IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator, from which she is looking to receive $10,000 in gap funding: “Interview potential clients in person,” the movers and shakers told her, “and then read between the lines.”

Her clinical rotation at the Newton, Massachusetts-based Paramount Performance and Rehab facility proved equally beneficial, helping her hone Physiocare’s personalized care plans. Her mentor reinforced the importance of weight-based rehabilitation, she says, and instructed her to push her patients to their athletic limits. The most effective recovery method, he told her, is to build strength by lifting things up and putting them down.

“I realized that I needed to make the personalized plans more challenging,” says Jarmusz, who completed the experiential learning opportunity in June. “My original program would have worked, but it would have taken longer.”

The future

Jarmusz plans to crowdfund Physiocare and fully expects the startup to take off in 2016. But her ultimate career goal, she says, is to combine her physical therapy acumen with her passion for nutrition and wellness. She sees herself in a leadership position, directing musculoskeletal health for a large hospital.

“I love physical therapy because I’m fascinated with the biomechanics of the human body,” she says. “I think there is so much that could be done if we all take musculoskeletal health seriously.”