Personal Health In The Digital Age

We live in the digital age. You know that already. Two out of three Americans are now smartphone owners, and more than 86 percent of the population is connected online. But while digital has permeated everything from our social lives to how we work and how we shop, it is only starting to touch how we manage health.

Yes, nearly 70 percent of Internet users look up health information online (who hasn’t been on in a panicked moment of self-diagnosis?). However, only one in five of us have an app downloaded on our smartphones to track our health. And health apps comprised only 2.8 percent of total app downloads from the Apple App Store a few months ago.

All of this points to the disconnect between personal technology and personal healthcare, despite the vital importance of the intersection of the two. Personal technology is proliferating, yet the health industry hasn’t caught up. How do we usher in personal health to all that the digital age has to offer?

Imagine using your phone as a remote diagnostic tool.

We need to put personal (tech) back in personal healthcare. Because digital is both ubiquitous and highly configurable, it allows health companies to meet customers where they are. That means personalized dashboards for consumers to stay on top of their own and their loved ones’ health needs, easily accessible via web and mobile. Or customized alerts to your smartphone through beacon technology, to send you relevant coupons and reminders while you’re browsing in a pharmacy. We can even imagine a world where you can text your pharmacy or healthcare professional with questions to receive timely, one-on-one communication.

Adherence: A $300 Billion Price Tab

One of the most obvious — and most acute — problems technology can help us solve is the riddle of keeping patients adherent to medication. Although advancements in the realm of personal and enterprise technology have been rampant, the way doctors prescribe medication, the way pharmacies distribute medication to patients and the way healthcare professionals keep patients adherent to prescriptions have remained largely the same over the past few decades. It’s time for the healthcare industry to take action to change the old ways of operating in this digital age.

We know that more and more customers engage with health companies online and via mobile, and these customers are also, on average, more adherent to their medications. With improved tracking and communication measures implemented via technology, we can cut back on the $300 billion in added costs non-adherence poses on the healthcare system every year — and save tens of thousands of lives in the process.

The tools and infrastructure for solving this problem are already at our fingertips. The increasing popularity of wearables, like the Apple Watch, offers an intuitive and non-obtrusive way to remind patients to take their medications and refill their prescriptions. Built-in biometrics technology means that, eventually, we could use cues like a change in heart rate to alert caretakers that a patient skipped a dose.

Gamification — the approach that has made apps like Foursquare and NikePlus so popular — is ripe for exploration in the healthcare space. For example, the Mango Health app offers points every time a patient takes their medication properly, which can then be redeemed for gift cards or charitable donations.

The Future Of Digital Health

And this is only the start. Imagine using your phone as a remote diagnostic tool with a small piece of plastic that turns your device into an otoscope: You could diagnose your child’s ear infection from home by matching up a photo of his ear to thousands of others in a database, then immediately schedule an appointment with your doctor for treatment.

There are already myriad players looking at the application of digital tools in new and exciting ways — offering a glimpse of the digital future:

Connected Devices and Communities. The Internet of Things space is a catalyst to advance digital health. Companies like iHealth are developing a suite of connected devices — from blood pressure monitors to easy-to-use scales — to make tracking and collating all your health information easy and accessible.

Others are honing in on a single issue, like Care TRX, which focuses specifically on connected inhalers. And what’s critical here is the greater ecosystem developed around these devices and the data they generate.

We all know how fun it can be to track your steps or your heart rate. But when health data can be shared with not just a patient, but with doctors, caregivers, pharmacists and others afflicted with the same issues for deeper analysis and comparison, it can be used to improve patient health at greater speed and scale.

Launching Innovative Business Models. Instead of going straight to the consumer, some companies — like Livongo, which makes a glucose monitor for diabetic patients — are also looking to increase adherence by working directly with insurance companies.

Similar to the oft-cited car insurance model, patients are issued a device that’s subsidized based on how well they adhere to their treatment regimen. By looking at creative ways to offer digital health tools — instead of going directly to consumers’ wallets — we’re only increasing the probability that those who need solutions most will get them.

Investing in Digital Health. It’s not just startups that are making an impact: Large companies are exploring ways to bring their resources and expertise to bear. Apple is a very clear example of a digital tech company investigating new health applications: The Apple Watch, as mentioned, is poised to be one of the most revolutionary healthcare devices yet on the market.

But a company like Phillips is another great example. Phillips has been a leader in the connected device space for more than a decade, with deep understanding of the health tech space. The company recently announced a five-year, $25 million alliance with MIT to research health diagnostics and imaging.

Of course, it’s not just healthcare startups and digital companies that have a role to play here. There’s so much opportunity ahead for the health industry at large to capitalize on new digital services and tools to help people on their path to better health — whether that’s health integration with the latest and greatest in mobile or remote diagnostics or biometrics. Now, more than ever, we need a joint effort among health players, retailers, tech companies and consumers alike to begin rethinking the way tech and health overlap in the digital age.