Accenture's top five digital health trends for 2016

By Jonah Comstock
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Accenture held a webcast today diving into five trends the consulting firm has identified as major driving forces right now in digital health. Report author and Senior Global Managing Director for Accenture Health Dr. Kaveh Safavi was joined by health economist and blogger Jane Sarasohn-Kahn to discuss the five trends.

The first trend, "Intelligent Automation", covers a range of tools that eliminate some human effort from the healthcare system -- without eliminating humans. 

"What we’re really talking about is taking advantage of advances in things like computing and AI and merging that with the work of human beings in order to make people more productive and also get a better result," Safavi said. "So it’s really people plus machines, as opposed to people being replaced by machines."

For instance, Safavi described a UK company called SilverCloud Health. It provides technology that supports mental health patients between therapy visits, and in the process enables therapists to increase their client load by a factor of six.

"It came out of a lab that recognized that you could use computer-based algorithms to treat mental illnesses like depression, but that people wouldn’t use them," Safavi said. "What they really wanted was an interaction with a person. SilverCloud has created a program where the therapist actually uses the technology, so when you’re not with the therapist you have the opportunity to interact with this technology and get recommendations outside of the visit."

The second trend, the "Liquid Workforce", is the idea that with the virtualization and decentralization of healthcare, providers can work from anywhere and healthcare businesses have access to more potential hires and startup partners. But this trend is not without challenges.

We may have liquid labor, Sarasohn-Kahn said, but "we don’t have liquid labor laws. In the US we have 50 states with 50 different licensures for the same radiologists." In addition, reimbursment is still challenging across state lines and broadband connectivity isn't available everywhere, which puts a limit on where healthcare workers can work from.

The third trend is the "Platform Economy", which Safavi described as a product of two minitrends: platform technology and an ecosystem economy.

"There are two things happening that combine to create a platform economy," he said. "On the technology side, we’re moving from discrete technologies to what we call platforms. Platforms are really an architecture that allows multiple technologies to work together. And then at the same time, on the business side, our economy is based more on multiple participants providing value rather than a single participant. We call that an ecosystem economy. When you have platform technology and ecosystem economy, you have a platform economy."

Safavi used Apple HealthKit as an example of an ecosystem economy empowered by a platform technology. The value of this trend, Sarasohn-Kahn added, is in it's near invisibility for the user.

"The consumer looks to have a streamlined, seamless, enchanting experience like their retail life," she said. "They don’t really care about a platform. That’s the ugly sausage-making process behind the scenes. What they care about is streamlining their healthcare experience, de-hassling it."

Accenture's fourth trend, "Predictable Disruption" says that healthcare will be disrupted by new innovators, but by looking to the ways other industries have been disrupted by the same technology, stakeholders can get ahead of these trends and not be left behind. That disruption is just as likely to come from outside healthcare as from within, Savafi warned.

"What’s interesting is that the technology and this platform economy suddenly make it possible for people who had no role in healthcare to change the nature of it," he said. "So look at what Uber is doing in healthcare. It turns out in healthcare there might be people at home who would love to have things delivered to them, medicines, vaccines, etc. Maybe nurses who want to do home visit need a ride because that’s the rate-limiting step. So Uber has entered into healthcare by providing logistical support that suddenly makes the nature of healthcare less location-dependent."

Finally, Accenture's last trend "Digital Trust" had to do with privacy. Sarasohn-Kahn and Savafi discussed how companies can earn consumers' trust and what ethical responsibilities they have with respect to patient data.

"We have a paper from the FTC that came out last year and their take on this is the data should be used in the context in which it was shared," Sarasohn-Kahn said. "So if you’re generating health-related data, it’s expected by a consumer to be used in a health context. If it’s flowing to a third party broker who has de-anonymized the data and it’s used in a discriminatory way, that’s not legal."

But for now the onus is on the companies to build consumers' trust, Savafi said. 

"If they behave in a way that’s consistent, eventually the market will recognize this," he said. "Like any business, you build trust through actual work."