Your relatives at the dinner table may not be too interested in hearing about your medical problems, but if you discuss illness, medications, and treatment on the Internet, an Israeli company called Treato is very interested in what you have to say. Treato, a medical social media company founded in 2009, has just begun to commercialize, and is in the business of “interpreting the really rich patient conversations that are happening daily,” in the words of Ezra Ernst, head of Treato’s American division.

Last month, Treato opened its American headquarters at 104 Carnegie Center. When describing what Treato does, there is no avoiding the cliche of “big data.” Treato combs tens of thousands of websites for public discussions of drugs, side effects, and other medical talk. That includes social media like Twitter and Facebook, but Ernst says the most useful information comes from obscure corners of the Web — forums where people have very detailed conversations about things like diabetes and cancer treatment.

Ernst says these conversations represent an enormous treasure trove of information that is of interest to pharmaceutical companies, patient advocacy groups, health policy makers, and patients themselves. On Treato’s website, more than 2 billion Internet posts by 143 million or so patients are made available for searching and analysis. Patients also have the ability to rate medications on a scale of smiley faces, as though they were restaurants on Yelp.com.

“If a patient is newly diagnosed with a condition and has a whole host of questions about insurance, prescriptions, and about the pills, they are able to feed that back to the policy makers and to the manufacturer of the drug they have been described, to develop education programs or change their policies and formulas,” Ernst says. “We like to think of it as giving pharmaceutical companies a seat at the table with patients and bringing those patients into the board room so they can participate in the conversation.”

Of course, pharmaceutical companies have always been interested in what their customers have to say, but traditionally they have relied on methods like focus groups to see what people thought of their drugs and how they were managing side effects. Ernst says there are limits to the classical approach.

“It’s been difficult for them, using traditional market research,” Ernst says. “There were a lot of two-way glass mirrors. It’s very expensive and time consuming, and there’s an innate selection bias. People who participate are doing it for a specific reason, usually financial compensation. This is much larger market analysis, for cheaper.”

Often, the people who are participating in online conversations are looking for advice from fellow patients. Ernst believes these conversations are a valuable tool, despite “Dr. Internet’s” reputation for dishing out questionable medical advice.

“We sort of balance that with the law of big numbers,” Ernst says. “You might find one person who says they eat tree bark and it helps them. You will find the occasional Dr. Internet person who leads people astray. But when you’re talking about 3 to 4,000 people, the trend is your friend and it helps separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Ernst says he believes patients put much more stock in what they hear from other patients than information that comes from authoritative websites. “My feeling is that people are less interested in going to large media sites for what they think is the correct treatment, and more interested in talking to other patients who have what they have.”

When thousands of people report a particular side effect to a drug, or a particular way of dealing with a side effect, the drugmakers want to know about it. Although Treato has kept its clients confidential, Ernst says one recent customer used Treato to analyze the side-effects of a chemotherapy drug. Treato’s research discovered that patients and doctors had begun creating symptom journals to keep track of their experiences. As a result of the research, the pharmaceutical company created its own comprehensive symptom log to give to patients.

“They saw best practices from their own patient groups that they had never seen before,” Ernst says. Treato also promises to help pharmaceutical companies track the effects of their marketing campaigns in real time. By analyzing Web data, they can see if a journal article or an ad campaign got people talking.

Ernst says Treato follows the privacy guidelines of the websites it gathers data from, and is careful not to go behind firewalls or to snoop on private discussions. He says Treato also removes private information from any web posts, only gathering demographic data like age and sex.

Treato was founded in Israel in 2009, and mostly did research until last year. The American office, where six people currently work, was placed in Carnegie Center, in the heart of the pharmaceutical industry.

Ernst says Treato’s Israeli origins are part of why he joined the company. Ernst was born in Israel, and moved to New York State at age 4. He grew up around medicine and communications media, the son of a medical doctor father and a publishing executive mother. He majored in English at the University of Rhode Island before beginning a career in the medical industry that included executive-level stints at SIS Inc., OptumHealth Education, and most recently, as manager of WebMD’s Medscape health education division. Ernst lives in Moorestown with his psychologist wife and two children.

Treato, 104 Carnegie Center, Suite 210, Princeton 08540; 917-412-4194. Ezra T. Ernst, chief commercial officer. www.treato.com

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