How The Digital Health Revolution Will Become A Reality

Beth Seidenberg of Kleiner Perkins recently stated that, “With billions of dollars at stake, the U.S. healthcare system offers entrepreneurs a tremendous opportunity to shake up one of the most complex sectors of the American economy.” In 2014, funding in digital health startups reached $3.5 billion, quadrupling its total from 2010. Even Jessica Alba is getting involved with funding a slew of digital health startups trying to heal the healthcare system.

Yet, to outlive the hype that comes with being Silicon Valley’s latest trend, and actually improve care for patients and consumers, health tech will require more than a just a funding pipeline. The good news is that all the pieces are in place — the problem, the appetite for a solution and the tech — to bring healthcare into the modern age.

The next step is to integrate efforts in cooperation with all of the players to put these cutting-edge technologies into action and transform care — a step often underestimated.

It also will require matching our maturing technology toolbox with macro trends that serve to hasten the evolution of our digital health future. We must take into account the ripple effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and begin to prepare for the Silver Tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers, who will be on the forefront of adopting digital health tools.

If we bring all the pieces together, our generation will go down in history as the era when healthcare joined the modern age. No longer will hospitals need to print discharge plans and hand them to frazzled patients and family members. No longer will a doctor need to fax a signature to a health agency.

Beyond the fundamentals, the biggest changes will be manifest in everything from how the healthcare is measured and managed to the mainstreaming of Internet of Things (IoT) technology to keeping seniors out of the hospital and able to spend more of their golden years at home. Here are three key areas that, if developed and implemented correctly, will help us seize the next great opportunity in tech and ignite the digital health revolution.

Focus On Quality: Measuring Outcomes With Big Data

The first step to utilizing modern technology to improve care processes is to tap into technologies used ubiquitously in other industries to measure effective, quality outcomes. It seems simple, but most doctors, nurses and aides in the U.S. do not know how long their own procedures, on average, require. Moreover, quality outcomes today are measured with metrics that are decades old and devices that are mostly manual.

Agree or disagree with the ACA, it has set us on a completely new trajectory for healthcare — one that relies heavily on new technology. Not so long ago, healthcare providers charged patients per visit or medical test — or fee for service. The incentive was simple: do more to make more. In response, healthcare produced volumes of unnecessary lab tests, procedures and additional billing items. But under the ACA, new payment requirements must be the norm by 2018. The focus now is on value, or high-quality care.

Quality outcomes today are measured with metrics that are decades old.

As a result, we are at a tipping point in how the healthcare industry measures outcomes. Using big data and other technologies, the opportunity for savings is massive. Approximately $44 billion is spent on unplanned hospital readmissions, with Medicare footing the bill for $26 billion. As a result, everyone is eagerly embracing technologies with a goal of keeping patients from making a return visit. To do so, investors are working with the best health tech innovators to create electronic records, sensors and wearables.

Leading electronic health record (EHR) vendors EpicCerner and Athenahealth have begun to tackle this challenge of monitoring and maintaining health data. Epic, for example, is working with Apple’s HealthKit to run pilot programs at hospitals for high-risk patients. There is still much progress to be made in this space, however. Creating measurement systems that work at each point of care and connecting the dots between each care setting and each party is the first piece to the puzzle.

New Care Settings: Telehealth And Shifting Healthcare From Hospital To Home

The second piece to unlocking the digital health potential is the recognition and development of new care settings. Think about care everywhere, not just in the hospital. This will be especially important for seniors, given the overwhelming preference of individuals facing retirement, who would prefer to stay in their own homes instead of moving to an assisted living facility.

As the primary point of care shifts to the living room for aging Baby Boomers, a major evolution is underway as home care becomes the next frontier of technology innovation. Telehealth technologies that allow doctors to conduct house calls from afar and monitor health conditions via wearable devices and in-home sensors will help avoid expensive hospitalizations and readmissions.

Propeller Health’s inhaler sensor serves as another example. The sensor tracks how often patients use their medication and sends alerts to their physician or caregiver if there are changes in usage. The sensor and accompanying mobile app are just one of many mobile applications in existence with the aim of curbing readmissions.

The New Front Line: Empowering Atypical Early Adopters

Our systems need to not only allow for telecommunication on phones, tablets and within IoT devices, but will need to be developed for an atypical group of early adopters –caregivers in the field, seniors aging at home instead and friends and family members who will assist with care management.

Given smartphone ownership is low among seniors, it underscores the need for health tech solutions outside of the mobile device. Lively is one startup that recognizes this. Similar to how Apple knew people wouldn’t want to wear a smartwatch if it wasn’t fashionable, Lively designed a stylish safety watch that works with activity sensors in the home to detect falls and notify family members of things like a missed meal. Family alerts that allow loved ones to remotely monitor are a must-have feature, given the 7-10 million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance, and the 15-24 million members of the sandwich generation that are adult-child caregivers.

Looking Ahead

The challenge facing health tech is arguably much greater than other industries because it is working within the confines of tremendous regulation and complexity. Revolutionizing a rigid system and tackling not-so-simple challenges like the rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation is a tall task, but the opportunity is ripe.

The Silver Tsunami is upon us, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that to avoid the wave crashing down, the health tech and healthcare industries will need to navigate this together. The problem, the opportunity and the tech are on the table — together, the digital health revolution will become a reality.