There Is Lots Of Low-Hanging Fruit For Digital Health Startups

At Disrupt Europe today, TechCrunch senior editor Jon Shieber talked to Peter Hames from Big Health, the National Director for Patients and Information in the National Health Service Tim Kelsey, and Dr. Dominic King from the HELIX Centre. Unsurprisingly, given these panelists, the first part of the panel focused on Ebola and the role tech can play in handing this and similar crises.

According to King, it’s important to remember that the question isn’t if but when hospitals in cities like London will have to deal with this disease. One of the challenges our modern healthcare systems face, in his view, is that they haven’t focused on managing infectious diseases lately but instead focused on chronic diseases. One thing King, as well as the other panelists, noted is that in order to deal with patients who think they have contracted Ebola, the last thing you want is to have everybody come to the hospital. “I don’t want to see people in our hospital saying ‘I may have Ebola,'” he said. Instead, he’d rather have them Skype their doctors and stay home.

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That view was echoed by the NHS’ Kelsey, too, who noted that he doesn’t want clinicians to come in contact with the patients — not just before they come to the hospital but also after they arrive. In addition, he noted that the NHS and other health care systems in the world are now using big data to map the likely spread of the disease to see what ports to monitor, for example. Talking about the long-term strategy, he also added that the NHS is driving its genomics agenda very hard to make it easier to find cures for infectious diseases.

While Ebola is obviously the pressing health issue of the day, the rest of the panel looked at the bigger picture of tech and healthcare. How can we use tech to bring down cost, for example? The NHS, Kelsey says, is trying to do this by enabling data sharing between clinicians, giving patients ownership of their own medical data and making it easier for entrepreneurs to access people’s records in order to create new products. “I hope this will be an industrial opportunity,” he said.

As King argued, though, it’s not just about data access and medicine, but also about changing behaviours. “The biggest challenges we face in healthcare are almost all behavioral,” he noted. In the U.K. and U.S., for example, 50 percent of the medicines prescribed are not taken properly. So one clear opportunity for startups here is to build systems that help improve compliance with doctors’ treatment plans. Indeed, King argues that there is a lot of “low-hanging fruit” in this field for startups right now. He and his colleagues, for example, often still use pagers and fax machines to send alerts and exchange information.

You can watch the full panel below: