Digital health looms for the industry, but is it ready?

Digital health may be a lot like beauty. It may be in the eye of the beholder, which makes it difficult to describe, but easy to recognize when you see it.

In its essence, digital health aims to use a blend of technologies and new approaches to get care to patients in convenient, cost-effective ways.

For providers used to providing care in traditional ways, digital health carries the prospect of being disruptive. Increasingly, providers see many examples of disruptive digital technology emerging around them, and they know they many of the care delivery approaches they’ve known from the past will be rapidly redefined.

However, many also know they are way behind the curve and will need to catch up.

That’s according to the results of a recent survey of healthcare IT executives by Health Data Management. It found that only 31 percent of respondents believe that their organizations are very or extremely effective in managing digital health initiatives.

However, more than twice as many respondents—61 percent—believe that digital health will be either very or extremely important. Another 29 percent believe managing digital health will be somewhat important—in all, that represents nine out of every 10 respondents who participated in the survey.

The study was conducted by Health Data Management and SourceMedia Research, the research arm of HDM’s parent company. A total of 160 responses, primarily from provider organizations, were received in late 2018.

In part, digital health initiatives are emerging in response to increasing consumerization in healthcare—they are seen as approaches that will help engage patients, while at the same time offering alternative approaches to delivering care that cost less and are more effective—key tenets of value-based care. These two trends portend rapid shifts to adopt digital health.

Indeed, investments are flowing into digital health at a massive scale. For example, 2018 was a record-breaking year for venture capital funding for healthcare IT companies, especially those working on digital health, according to research firm Mercom Capital Group.

Overall, 2018 saw 698 deals with U.S. digital health companies, raising close to $7 billion; another $2.5 billion was raised by companies from other countries-that $9.5 billion total represents a 32 percent increase from the previous record set in 2017 of $7.2 billion in 778 deals.

Mercom reports that the highest funded tech categories last year included data analytics ($2.1 billion), mHealth apps ($1.3 billion), telemedicine ($1.1 billion), mobile wireless technology ($847 million), clinical decision support ($714 million) and wearable sensors technology ($703 million).

The HDM survey sought to assess which digital technologies provider organizations are using to improve patient experience and outcomes—respondents could select all technologies their organizations are employing.

Some 65 percent of respondents said their organization was starting with simple communication, using text messaging and email to communicate with patients. Another 56 percent are using personal health records, often made accessible through patient portals and as a component of providers’ electronic health records systems.

More than half (54 percent) of respondents’ healthcare organizations are offering telemedicine and virtual physician visits. Acceptance of these kinds of virtual encounters is rapidly rising to meet rising consumer demand and the cost constraints imposed by value-based care.

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Another 40 percent of respondents said their organizations are offering mobile apps to consumers; another 37 percent are offering web-based interactive programs to consumers. While respondents reported a variety of other digital health initiatives are underway, none of them were mentioned by more than 20 percent of respondents.

Consumers are looking use more digital health technologies, and providers are reading the tea leaves and adjusting course. For example, the American Medical Association has developed a playbook to help doctors implement digital health technologies, saying the initiative is crucial for its membership because the use of emerging technologies will be a force in transforming healthcare.

“Digital tools that enable new methods and modalities to improve healthcare, enable lifestyle change and create efficiencies are proliferating quickly,” contends the AMA. The guide, which is designed for care teams and administrators in medical practices of all sizes and areas of specialty, includes key steps, best practices and resources to accelerate the adoption of digital health solutions, according to the AMA.

It’s not just medical professionals who see the transformational sea change of digital health ready to disrupt the industry. Some of the nation’s largest technology companies are entering the scene.

For example:

  • Amazon in the past year has made a number of significant moves that are fueling speculation about what the online giant’s ambitions might be in the healthcare sector, including staffing up on healthcare IT experts and making key acquisitions that could give it an entry point to the market.
  • Walgreens Boots Alliance and Microsoft have entered a seven-year agreement to form a strategic partnership to build digital healthcare solutions. The companies say they are joining forces to develop new healthcare delivery models, technology and retail innovations. The intent is to combine Microsoft’s Azure cloud and AI platform with Walgreens’ customer reach, retail pharmacy locations, outpatient services and industry expertise.
  • Humana, one of the country’s largest healthcare insurance companies, plans to bolster its digital health and analytics capabilities with a new development center located in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood.

As new companies expand healthcare options for consumers, traditional healthcare providers will inexorably be pulled to adjust their models to incorporate digital technologies.

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