During a doctor visit, patients check various boxes on information forms to provide insight about their medical history and current health conditions. This offers more focused care for the patient. Treepple, a University of Missouri-developed news application, uses a similar approach to gather data for a tailoring engine that generates health news content specific to individual users.

Why tailored?

Glen CameronDecades of research has shown that providing tailored health news to individuals, rather than generic mass messaging, helps change patient-centered outcomes, says Glen T. Cameron, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and senior scientist at MU’s Health Communication Research Center.

“A lot of health messaging out there is what I would call thread-bare and counterproductive,” says Cameron. “Many messages make recipients feel judged and hectored. A message that makes you feel bad makes you push back.”

Cameron points out that health messages are often one-size-fits-all.

“They don’t know who you are or what you are dealing with,” he says. “Meanwhile, a ton of scholarship shows tailored messaging works.  And thanks to our research, we know tailored news works even better because news stories tell the user what to think about, not what to think.  In turn, news reduces psychological reactance because it informs without judging or shaming or pushing the recipient the way many health messages do.”

In addition to tailored health news, Treepple features a personal health record within the system where users can write journal entries about their current health and rate their mood and energy levels. Users can then share those personal health records with family members or others through Treepple’s social support network.

Tailored video news

Currently, Treepple’s tailored health news is offered as online articles but the Treepple team is in the process of developing tailored video health news. Customers can receive notifications of new stories via email or text message. This past spring Jim Flink, mobile news consultant at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, and his Emerging Technologies class at the Missouri School of Journalism coached two Columbia, Missouri, physicians and the Treepple team on how to produce these videos.

Treepple’s customers and users 

Treepple customers include insurance and pharmaceutical companies, large employers, Medicare, and Medicaid, says Cameron.  The users of Treepple include employees of those large employers or insured customers of insurance companies.

“Executives who want patients to live better and thereby contain healthcare costs are considering Treepple,” he says.

One of Treepple’s current customers is the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Nation in Kansas, which is using Treepple to address the major health consequences of diabetes. Within the Treepple system, tribal members provide information such as their gender, weight and height, and indicate whether they have full, limited or no mobility.  In turn, Treepple users receive news stories that are customized to their health status.

“For example, let’s say Treepple knows I can’t walk anymore due to severe diabetic complications in my legs,” says Cameron. “The tailored story describes alternative forms of exercise such as water aerobics that have been found to be effective.” 

Treepple’s history with RJI

Mugur Geana In 2008, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which funded the launch and operation of RJI, asked leaders from the Missouri School of Journalism and MU’s School of Medicine to collaborate on a patient education project that would address two program priorities of the Foundation – journalism and geriatrics.

As a result, Cameron, who was developing tailored health news in a research center funded by the National Cancer Institute, teamed up with colleagues from the medicine and nursing departments on the University of Missouri campus.

A prototype mobile app developed by Cameron and Mugur Geana, a MU doctoral graduate (now a University of Kansas journalism professor) emerged. RJI provided acceleration funding for Treepple to work with the University of Kansas Medical Center on a field test with rural diabetic patients in Western Kansas.

“The patients liked the customized, clear news and loved the networking with other rural diabetics,” says Cameron. “Their confidence to manage diabetes increased three-fold after a summer with Treepple.”

What’s next?

In fall 2013, Treepple began its role as communication platform for a 5-year, $5 million center based in Family and Community Medicine at the University of Missouri to help patients go from hospital to home, and later to help chronic pain patients better manage the use of narcotic medicines.

  “This opportunity and the many business prospects being pursued now by Treepple mean we just might make the millions of federal research and development dollars invested in his work into a smart buy,” says Cameron. “This is my paramount goal for my last decade of full-time work for the J-School.”

The University of Kansas remains a co-owner of Treepple with the University of Missouri, which manages the license agreement for Treepple. At present, Treepple is entertaining angel investment while seeking larger, longer-term contracts with companies and insurance providers.

Did you know?

“Treepple” is a variation of the word “triple.” It recognizes the app’s three features — tailored news, personal health records and a social support network. Mugur Geana, formerly a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, helped develop the app. His Romanian accent made “triple” sound like “Treepple."

Jennifer Nelson-Pallikkathayil  
Senior Information Specialist


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