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At Omada Health, using design and social support to fight diabetes

In helping people take on diabetes, Omada Health isn’t just enlisting digital devices and CDC-supported research, it’s using good design.

Led by founders who previously worked at IDEO and Google (s GOOG), the San Francisco-based company last year graduated from health startup accelerator Rock Health and raised $800,000 from investors including Esther Dyson, Kapor Capital and New Enterprise Associates. On Tuesday, the startup launched its first product, Prevent, a web-based program for helping people at risk for diabetes lower their chances of developing the chronic disease.

According to the CDC, 1 in 3 American adults have prediabetes, meaning that their blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetic. But potentially 90 percent don’t know their risk.

Omada Health’s new product lets people assess their risk with a series of questions online and then sign-up for a 16-week program that includes personalized guidance from a health coach, social support and digital health tracking to encourage the behavior and lifestyle changes that can reduce risk. (In the future, the company plans to sell $25 A1C tests so that people can measure their blood glucose levels at home.)

Omada HealtSean Duffy, the startup’s co-founder and CEO said that nationwide, the CDC is deploying community diabetes prevention programs based on an NIH-sponsored study, called the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), which showed that comprehensive weight loss programs can prevent diabetes.

“Our goal is to serve as a complement to those efforts and expand the reach to more people with fun and beautiful experiences that represent the best of the consumer web,” Duffy said.

The program costs $120 per month, for four months, and includes the curriculum, health coach, a digital scale and online and social networking tools. When participants sign up, they’re placed into small groups with others with similar BMIs (body mass index), ages and locations and they’re sent a welcome kit with a wireless scale, intro guide and food diary (for those who prefer old-fashioned pens and paper).

As they progress through the 16 weeks and learn about diet, exercise and other healthy habits, they’re guided by a web-based program with a simple, friendly Facebook- or LinkedIn-like interface. In creating the program, Duffy said they focused on the design of the software, as well as the experience, with the goal of making it sticky and enjoyable for users. For example, the program uses subtle peer pressure by showing all the members in a group how much weigh loss progress each person has made, but never shows each person’s precise weight. The program also includes surprise packages that are mailed to users’ homes.

Given the growing epidemic of diabetes, it’s encouraging to see more startups – and Glooko, for example, in addition to Omada Health – bringing technology to bear. Omada’s plan isn’t cheap and some people might feel that they could participate in other kinds of weight loss programs instead. But it mirrors the programs in use by the CDC specifically for diabetes and its small group and coaching approach produces results. In a 230-person pilot of Prevent, the average participant lost 13.7 pounds after 16 weeks.

Image by Gts via Shutterstock.

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