Impacting Health through Improved Symptom Tracking: Project Sonar

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) has partnered with the Illinois Gastroenterology Group (IGG) to help people living with Crohn’s disease, a lifelong inflammatory disease that typically involves specialty care and hospitalization. Crohn’s disease incurs an average cost of $24,000 for each patient each year, with over 50% of the nonpharmaceutical costs spent on hospital care.

Project Sonar is an innovative system that uses SonarMD’s smartphone technology to assist patients in tracking their symptoms and managing their disease. Project Sonar is part of a specialty Intensive Medical Home (IMH), which creates a more comprehensive environment to support patients with chronic diseases.

In a review of 23,000 patients with Crohn’s disease, over two-thirds of those who were admitted to the hospital had not seen a doctor within 30 days of the hospital visit. Regular visits to a physician can help a patient with Crohn’s disease avoid hospital visits. To help reduce Crohn’s-related hospitalization rates, Project Sonar tracks symptoms over time and relays that information to each patient’s care team.

BCBSIL provided IGG with claims data for its patients living with Crohn’s disease, which revealed a comprehensive view of the patients’ health issues. In addition, BCBSIL conducted an internal analysis to define the SonarMD scoring results and added control data for comparison.

The specialty IMH currently coordinates care for 350 Crohn’s disease patients. Project Sonar uses SonarMD to address the health of these patients by communicating with them through a secure web-based platform in lieu of inpatient visits or phone calls. Patients are “touched” at a minimum of once per month with a digital “ping,” which poses a set of questions designed to assess their set of symptoms. Provider efficiency is increased by using technology to engage patients, which allows providers to spend additional time with critical patients who are in need of intervention. SonarMD’s platform was built by physicians who understand the nature of the disease and the needs of the patients, resulting in a tailored approach that impacts the right population.

Within the IMH, a nurse care manager approaches each attributed patient to assess his or her medical and psychological needs and to develop an action plan in conjunction with the patient. Patients are then enrolled in the SonarMD platform, where they take monthly symptom assessments and receive reminders and information about their care.

The monthly health assessment gathers information about each patient’s symptoms, which is translated into a current symptom score, called a Sonar score. The Sonar score is sent to the patient’s care team, which can intervene before the patient needs to go to the hospital. People with a chronic disease may not recognize when they’re starting to deteriorate, so these touchpoints and monthly surveys help track their symptoms and avoid hospital stays.

Project Sonar has been a successful example of population health management, meaning its aim is to increase the health and decrease the costs of a specific population. By targeting the Crohn’s disease population, Project Sonar created significant change that reduced costs and created a better patient environment.

This program reduced inpatient admissions and emergency room visits by over 50%. Total cost of care was reduced by 9.8%, even while pharmaceutical prices rose. Members of this IMH saw an improved quality of care and reported improved satisfaction, and patients who responded to their pings drove the half-million dollars in savings. In light of this success, Project Sonar is expanding to include an additional gastroenterology group and may be used for cancer care, diabetes, and other conditions with high complication rates. This partnership is an example of how positive payer and provider partnerships can promote overall member health and well-being while increasing the affordability of care. 

Metcalfe, Leanne
Senior Director of Consultative Data Science at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of IL, MT, NM, OK, TX