HIT Think

Six reasons digital health is coming of age

Digital healthcare, a discipline with enormous potential to dramatically improve healthcare and healthcare delivery as we know it, is no longer an experiment or a novelty. It is a budding industry attracting not only major new players and consumers but, most important, investors – the key to ongoing adoption and growth.

Even five years ago—a relative blink of an eye in historical terms—this would not have been true. Venture capital investing in digital healthcare in 2011 totaled less than $1 billion. Two years later, it more than doubled, to $1.9 billion – better, yes, but still modest. Then along came 2014, when funding more than doubled again, to $4.3 billion, followed by yet another record—$4.5 billion—in 2015, according to investment tracker Rock Health.


As important as this accelerating growth is the type of growth – specifically, more durable later-stage investing, which accounted for nearly a quarter of deal volume last year. .M&A activity nearly doubled. Five IPOs also raised $1.4 billion.

How big is this market that so excites investors? Goldman Sachs forecasts the market near-term exceeding $32 billion. Digital health is growing rapidly because it produces more efficient healthcare -- long overdue in a U.S. healthcare system that struggles with high costs and inefficiencies despite its world-class physicians and medical technology.

Among the exciting avenues being opened in digital health are digital therapeutics such as web, mobile, wearable and other technologies rolled up in an intervention plan to provide therapeutic impact, support healthy behaviors and ultimately prevent the onset of chronic diseases.

Two promising companies in this space are HealthReveal and Omada Health. HealthReveal analyzes the health of at-risk patients through a cloud-based, digital health solution and intervenes with diagnostic and treatment guidance to empower patients to proactively avoid permanent health problems. Omada Health has adopted similar technology, which identifies employees most at risk for chronic conditions and sends them a wireless digital scale, pedometer and exercise bands. Then it pairs each participant with a personal health coach and online peer support group.

Other enticing opportunities include the development of consumer digital tools that expand the population that can monitor their health and generate pertinent data. Previously, individuals who were not patients in clinical research were excluded from data collection. Today, by contrast, digital tools provide all web-connected individuals with the opportunity to monitor and track their health status outside the four walls of healthcare.

Take, for example, traditional blood pressure cuff monitors. Remote monitoring wrist-worn devices can continuously record vitals over time with minimal effort. This makes readouts a better indicator of cardiovascular risk and opens the door more quickly to intervention.

Goldman Sachs pegs the total savings opportunity from digital healthcare adoption at more than $300 billion, much of which will again come from better chronic disease management.

Why are these opportunities unfolding? I see six key reasons:

Higher deductibles. The proportion of the population enrolled in high-deductible health plans has swelled, by some estimates fivefold in the last decade. This makes people far more attuned to the cost of healthcare and what they get for their money, creating a consumer in healthcare that demands high-value services.

Digitalization of clinical data. This has been spurred by the HITECH Act to implement electronic health records. EHR data provides digital health entrepreneurs with a deep repository of clinical data to mine for analytical insight and patient health updates, plus a central software platform for caregiver and patient interactions.

The growth of value-based medicine. This effort, led especially by Medicare, focuses on healthcare outcomes, not procedures, and pressures the healthcare system to deliver higher-quality care at lower costs. Increasingly, the current fee-for-service model is considered unsustainable because it creates incentives to drive higher volume and pricing without sufficient correlation to quality outcomes.

Better mobile devices. With the widespread adoption of electronic health records and smartphones, easy-to-use wearable and implantable devices can now provide actionable data, not just a catalog of data.

Heightened interest in interaction. Physicians, hospital administrators and patients are inclined to engage with each other more than before, sometimes through smartphone apps provided by doctors and hospitals to track patient health metrics or remote technologies to track data and tweak prescriptions.

Large non-healthcare companies are embracing digital healthcare technology, and innovative startups are pushing the envelope even harder. Companies such as IBM, Oracle and Philips see the growth of digital technology helping their businesses. An impressive player is HealthEdge, which has more than 10 years and $200 million invested in patented, award-winning health insurance software. It is the only integrated financial, administrative and clinical platform, producing enormous efficiencies of scale. Among its customers is insurance giant Aetna.

Digital healthcare has started to revolutionize healthcare by making prevention, diagnosis and treatment widely accessible at a fraction of the previous cost. The changes so far are relatively embryonic and will take years to spread widely. But they have arrived and will inevitably grow, and future generations, in particular, will be huge beneficiaries.

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