Digital Health is Underfunded

digital health is underfundedOverall venture capital funding made a sharp decline in the last two quarters amid worries (justifiable or not) of a bear market and a funding bubble in technology investments. In contrast to the tech market, however, digital health funding continues to grow at a record pace. According to Rock Health, $4.5B was invested in digital health in 2015 (an increase from $4.3B from 2014) and $981 million has already been invested in the first quarter of this year. It seems on pace to be another stellar year, which is remarkable considering what is going on in other sectors.

Many are skeptical about the investment potential of healthcare technology investments and have been wary to enter the market (perhaps especially so with all the negative media that companies like Theranos and Zenefits have attracted). Additionally, regulatory barriers and the longer timeline needed with healthcare innovations tend to scare potential investors away.  But anyone familiar with the sad state of technology in healthcare can see, even with the record-breaking investments thus far, that there continues to be an enormous untapped opportunity in healthcare–greater, I believe, than in any other sector.

Digital health is vastly underfunded.

Technology is taking over most of our personal and professional lives with indispensable apps, wearables, and other connected devices and software. At home, we have smart appliances, lighting, thermostats, security systems, media systems, and even smart cars. And we have Siri, Cortana, and Alexa doing our bidding. But in healthcare, we’re still in the Stone Ages in terms of technology. Communication via faxes, for example, is still common between hospitals and doctors offices. There are small glimmers of hope, such as patient portals, higher-functionality EMR systems, and telehealth services, but the fact is that we are still a far cry from the ideal vision for healthcare, which includes a seamless cloud-based network of devices and software that can track and record a vast spectrum of patient information, the ultimate goal being the use of computational technology to help prevent, predict, diagnose, and yes, even treat disease. Ultimately, collecting information on large populations of patients could have profound impact through public health measures that can prevent disease and thereby reduce healthcare costs. This can only be accomplished with a wide-spread network of software and devices, that includes electronic health records, wearables, devices based in the hospital, office, and at-home, and with telehealth capabilities. In addition, there are too few companies working to collect, store, manage, and interpret health data.

There is still a lot that needs to be done.

According to MarketResearch.com, the healthcare “internet of things” (IoT) is expected to reach $117B by the year 2020. The fact is, the full potential of digital health won’t be seen until every hospital and doctor’s office and home is connected via cloud-based devices and software and with the development of machine learning platforms that can make sense of the reams of health information.

It is a little challenging to think of all of this in the abstract, so here are a few examples of the potential of the healthcare IoT. Imagine that a spike in certain population health data (like temperature) is detected in a region of the country that alerts public health officials to early to a disease outbreak that can then be contained to prevent an epidemic. Imagine that a change in an individual’s biometric data alerts that person to seek medical care, detecting a life-threatening disease, like cancer, early and improving the chances of cure. Imagine chronic health conditions like diabetes are monitored routinely and continuously with real-time blood glucose levels, with immediate adjustment by doctors of insulin dosages, thereby preventing hospitalizations due to uncontrolled diabetes, and also preventing long-term diabetic complications, such as kidney disease.

These are only a few examples.  There are countless other opportunities in healthcare.

In addition to the opportunity to improve healthcare delivery, there is the opportunity to improve the quality of care through tools that provide greater communication and transparency of information with patients and improve care coordination between the providers of those patients. And by changing the focus of medical care to prevention and early diagnosis of disease, there is the opportunity to decrease the outrageous cost of healthcare as well, by decreasing the need for excessive medication, surgery, unnecessary visits, and hospitalizations. According to the Commonwealth Fund, in the US we spend an outsized proportion of our GDP on healthcare versus other countries. Other developed countries spend between 8.8%-11.6% to our 17% of GDP, related in part to better-connected health IT networks.

It’s hard to fathom how much digital health tech is needed to serve a US population of 318 million and a global population of 7 billion, but one thing is certain: the market is huge.  We should stay bullish on health tech investments now, and probably for a long while to come.

 

Walgreens: Investing in the Power of the Patient

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Thanks in part to Affordable Care Act reforms and the rise of digital health, patients now have more skin in the game, more health care tools at their disposal, and more information than ever before to take charge of their own health.

Dr. Harry Leider, CMO and Group VP of Walgreens, speaking on a panel at last week’s Digital Healthcare Innovation Summit in Boston, said health care providers must find a way to adapt to the schedules and demands of patients, who have more say over how their health care dollars – and their time – are spent.

“Traditional providers are learning that they [patients] are not willing to take a half-day off from work, figure out what to do with their kids, to get routine care,” he told the panelists. “People are busier, the information technology has made it easier to get solutions without having to spend a half-day somewhere.”

It’s no surprise, then, that pharmacy retailers are placing big bets on consumer-facing health care opportunities.

In the past few years, the pharmacy-services giant CVS Health has made big investments in this area, dropping tobacco sales, expanding its MinuteClinics, and also establishing a drug ad-herence program. Now with Walgreens’ recent announcement of its $9.4 billion acquisition of Rite Aid Pharmacies, it has effectively overtaken CVS to become the leader with 46.5% of the market to CVS’ 30.9% share.

But Walgreens is looking to get bigger on the back end as well. Also, just this week it announced an upgrade to their mobile app which improves its functionality and also expands their telehealth services to 25 states (previously available in only 5 states). Walgreens’ other health care investments hint at its level of commitment, including its partnership with controversial laboratory services company Theranos and a recent announcement that it has partnered with health information tech giant Epic to install that firm’s electronic health record software across all of its health care clinics.

Walgreens is banking on its huge presence to provide easy and convenient access to the next generation of health care consumers. “Everybody knows Walgreens,” Leider said. “We have 8,300 stores, 25,000 pharmacies, and over 1,000 nurse practitioners in our clinics.” He also emphasized that half of Walgreens are located in ethnically diverse areas, with a large number of especially high-risk populations, which gives them a unique opportunity to influence health care outcomes. “Take the average diabetic patient. Diabetes is an epidemic in our country, but especially among diverse populations. First of all, a diabetic, if they’re lucky, sees a primary care doctor two to three times a year. The average diabetic comes to our pharmacy counter 20 times a year. So the opportunity to provide systems that can solve problems is greater because of this.”

Walgreens has started a digitally supported Healthy Choices Program, which rewards consum-ers for walking, weighing themselves, logging blood pressure and blood glucose levels, commit-ting to smoking cessation, and setting other health goals. In addition, it offers digital health coaching, pharmacy checks, and even virtual doctor visits.

Roughly 800,000 people have signed up, Leider said. About 500,000, of those patients are sharing their personal health data with Walgreens. What the company has found thus far from its collection of these data is that engaged users (who are actively tracking their weight) lost an average of 3.3 pounds more than non-engaged users and 1 out of 6 lost more than 10 lbs. In addition, Walgreens found that its engaged users have overall healthier behaviors and better drug adherence.

Still, he’s not a blind advocate of digital health: “I don’t think digital health alone can solve the problems you’re talking about.” Leider insists that Walgreens is not trying to usurp the tradition-al establishment but rather be a resource to providers. “We really see ourselves as supporting traditional providers and adding value to the ecosystem. We’re not gearing ourselves up to do primary care,” he said. “So our strategy really is to provide a low-cost option for care and to partner with health systems and providers.”

Going forward, Dr. Leider would like to see a greater transition to value-based care. “Despite what everybody’s saying, most providers are still trying to keep the beds full and have the most number of visits. So, for all this tech to be funded and sustainable, it’s got to be the right envi-ronment to really reward people for staying well.”

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This article was originally published at www.digitalhealthcaresummit.com.  

Electronic Health Records: Opportunities

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As discussed in the previous article in this series, the broad adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) has presented healthcare professionals with numerous challenges. It’s not surprising that many of us are left wondering: Will all of this effort to rapidly adopt EHRs even be worth it in the end?

Where We Are Now

To better understand this, it’s helpful to first take a closer look at the current state of the U.S. healthcare system. In 2000, the Institute of Medicine released their landmark report, To Err is Human, which exposed the alarming number of deaths that occur as a result of medical errors in the U.S. This was a big shock to many who assumed that the American healthcare system was the best in the world. To add insult to injury, we also discovered around that same time that healthcare costs were skyrocketing – in fact, they had doubled from 1993 to 2004.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, the United States today has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, spending about $8,500 per capita, or nearly 18% of our GDP, while also consistently ranking dead last in overall performance and quality compared to all other industrialized nations. One can’t help but wonder: What are other countries doing that we’re not? Well, two things in particular stand out when we compare our healthcare system to theirs: 1. A lack of universal healthcare coverage; and 2. A lack of high-functioning, fully-integrated health information systems. It turns out that our international counterparts have surpassed us when it comes to providing high quality, affordable, and accessible healthcare. One of the key elements of their success has been harnessing health IT.

Opportunities to Consider

Considering all of this, it’s no surprise that we have had bipartisan support for the expansion of EHRs from both Presidents Bush and Obama and that we continue to invest in creating a fully interoperable, nationwide network for health information. If EHRs can be harnessed properly, they promise to deliver lowered healthcare costs, improved quality, increased access, and improved population health. Let’s take another look at those challenges presented in the last part of this series. Where are the opportunities in these challenges?

1. Cost

Despite the high costs of implementing new EHR systems, there are also numerous studies that report that high-functioning EHR systems can help to decrease costs in the long run. One study found a 12.9 to 14.7% reduction of duplicative testing with the use of computerized provider order entry (CPOE) and clinical decision support (CDS) in an outpatient setting. Overhead costs may also be decreased through the reduction of chart pulls and from reduced paper, supplies, and storage costs, as well as via decreased transcription costs. Efficiencies can also be gained in billing processes with improved and complete documentation, improvements in the charge and capture process, and through decreases in billing errors. A study from Massachusetts found that paid malpractice claims may also be minimized with use of EHRs vs. paper records (6.1% vs. 10.8% paid claims).

It remains to be seen if EHR-induced savings will be favorable versus the cost expenditures required to operate them. But these studies show that there’s reason to be hopeful.

2. Quality & Communication

Investing in a high-quality EHR system has also been shown, in some studies, to result in higher overall quality, improvements in safety, and decreases in delayed medical decision-making. A study of hospitals in Florida found that those with greater investments in health information technology scored higher in quality measures. A similar study found that those hospitals with greater investments had lower patient complications and lower mortality rates as well. Other research has demonstrated that high-quality EHR systems improved prescribing patterns, too. In these ways, EHRs may support improved outcomes and thereby reduce malpractice and liability risks.

Highly interoperable EHR systems have also been credited with improving the communication and coordination of care between providers, and with decreasing delays in medical decision-making that can result from having to wait for the transfer of medical records. A strong health IT system can also enhance communication between providers and patients and help to foster increased patient engagement through the use of applications such as patient portals and interfaces with radiology, laboratory, and medical devices. Patients may be more apt to become actively involved in managing their health and participating in shared decision-making as a result of having easier access to their health information. 

3. Access 

Another advantage of EHRs is that they can help to provide convenient and timely access to a patient’s health record. We’re still a far way away from a fully transparent nationwide (or global) healthcare network, but these advances are coming. In addition, as the telehealth and mHealth market grows, and as we see better integration of other platforms with EHRs, we will likely see a huge revolution in access to personal health information. This need is especially urgent in light of the dire shortage of primary care physicians. Telehealth capabilities of EHRs may very well be the solution to providing access to medical care for patients in underserved or remote regions.

4. Population Health

As we succeed in integrating systems and improving interoperability, we will have the ability to aggregate huge amounts of health data for entire populations of patients. This “big data” can be used to conduct population health research, which can help identify patterns such as risk factors for diseases. With this, physicians will be better able to recommend preventative measures and evidence-based best practices. This information can also be harnessed to change practice patterns and hopefully, to affect positive healthcare outcomes on a broader scale. EHRs can also help to enhance reporting capabilities, which may help identify potentially dangerous outbreaks or treatment-related risks quickly, so that they can be managed in a more timely and effective manner.

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The Bottom Line

EHRs hold a great deal of promise to truly transform our ailing healthcare system. How well we succeed will depend in large part on how we can overcome and manage key challenges affecting cost, interoperability, safety, and patient-centered care. It remains to be seen if the cost-to-benefit will be ultimately favorable, but these preliminary findings and evidence of international success give us reasons to be hopeful.

This article was originally published on MedTech Boston.