Empathy matters: Klick Labs device simulates Parkinson's tremors, directly

Twins Jim and Pat Smerdon test Klick Labs' SymPulse device that transmit Parkinson's disease tremors.

What began as a request from a pharma client to help its sales reps empathize with Parkinson’s patients has become Klick Health’s own project to increase understanding for all patients.

Klick's digital innovation unit Klick Labs created a device to transmit tremors from a Parkinson's patient to someone who doesn't suffer from the disease, to dramatically illustrate its effects. That's empathy-creation in action, and the basis for a planned clinical study about the ways empathy can improve patients' health.

For pharmas, it's a potential tool for sales-rep training. And the device can show differences between patients who are treated and those who aren't, Klick says, opening up the potential for other applications.

Here's how it works. The programmable SymPulse device connects a Parkinson’s patient to a second person. A sensor on the patient digitizes and transmits tremors or muscle contractions, using electrical muscle stimulation, to a device worn by the non-patient. The result? The receiver can feel the exact same things the patient does. Klick refers to it as "tele-empathy."

The research project has already proven Klick’s digitizing physiology model—that tremors can, in fact, be transmitted using sensors and software. A second phase now under way will study the clinical benefits of empathy.

“We know that empathy has clinical benefits for the patient and for the doctors, so increased empathy is a good thing. Not just on the feel-good level, but also clinically. Patients do better when doctors have increased empathy,” said Yan Fossat, VP, Klick Labs, adding,  “[Now] we’re going to quantify the amount of empathy increase we can get with our device, and how long it lasts.”

As part of the project, Klick shot a video that explains the device and shows how it created empathy among the 43-year-old Smerdon twin brothers—Jim, who has early onset Parkinson’s disease, and Pat, who does not—and Jim’s wife, Deanna. After wearing the SymPulse and feeling his brother Jim's tremors for the first time, Pat struggles to keep his composure, and then breaks up as he tries to explain how he felt. Jim says, "Nurses and neurosurgeons could experience it in almost real-time, and I think it will be a game-changer for them."

Klick Labs is already working on a similar empathy device for COPD, Fossat said.

A Harvard study quoted by Klick showed that 53% of physicians reported declining levels of empathy after several years of practice, and only 33% reported increasing levels.

“From a pharma company standpoint there could be many applications. One of them would be to increase the empathy of their salesforce. It could be combined with the sales, marketing, promotional or educational material that explains how the drug affects the specific patient," Fossat said.

"Because we can transmit tremors of an untreated patient," he said, "we can also transmit the treated patient. It is easier to understand what a treatment does to a patient when you feel it—you can literally feel the tremors changing."

Other pharma companies are experimenting with using empathy to benefit patients. GlaxoSmithKline created its own empathy-engaging augmented reality device last year in a marketing campaign for Excedrin Migraine; it simulated migraine headaches for the loved ones of sufferers. Johnson & Johnson has purposefully added empathy to its consumer healthcare business strategy as a way to differentiate its brands and drive beyond product messaging.

The goal of the Klick Labs research is first to confirm that the idea of tele-empathy is sound and can be applied to many different diseases, Fossat said. It will also look at the potential to facilitate diagnoses over distances, and in the future, test digital-model versions of drugs on digital versions of a patient.