Digital health execs: Focus should be on consumer not technology

By Aditi Pai
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Propeller Health's respitory management platform Propeller Health's respitory management platform

The mobile health space is getting crowded, Proteus Digital Health Chief Product Officer David O'Reilly said at the Connected Health Symposium in Boston, Massachusetts.

"I find it a little tedious how many different wristbands based on the same accelerometer technology are coming out," O'Reilly said. "But what's happening is people are getting very comfortable with devices that are on them and around them that are sensing their body and their behavior."

This trend, O'Reilly said, is helping to familiarize people with medical products that "are deeply involved in healthcare and chronic disease".

Still, O'Reilly, along with Propeller Health (formerly Asthmapolis) CEO David Van Sickle and MD Revolution CEO Samir Damani still see barriers that are preventing new care deliver solutions from taking off.

One barrier discussed was the need to focus on the consumer, instead of technology. Although O'Reilly said his company loves his product, the technology his company built can't be the end in itself.

"Part of the challenge is you have to have the technology disappear and you have to focus on something else," O'Reilly said. "We feel strongly you have to focus on the consumer, very few product developers, very few companies, very few institutional health systems, very few doctors focus on the actual desires of the consumer -- the patient as a consumer, and if you get that right, if you do what the consumer technology industry does instinctively and very intuitively, then you can start to break some of these barriers, but you have the get past the technology and focus on the right thing."

Damani finds that while this barrier exists, he also has seen that consumers are going away from saying 'that's a cool consumer technology' to saying 'what is it going to do for people'. What he believes is another barrier is getting people to move towards preventative care, and getting other players in the space to invest in those kinds of technologies.

"We have to start seeing insurers start saying 'You know what, if i'm going to spend $50,000 for bariatric surgery or $100,000 to put a defibrillator in a failing heart, then I need to spend $200 to get a blood pressure cuff for a patient employee,'" Damani said. "It's really quite insane when you think about the kind of money you spend towards procedures that treat disease when we could spend a fraction of that to prevent it. So the payor piece really needs to come into play before I think digital health is really going to take off."

Other players in that space, Damani said, might be forced into using preventative care technologies because of meaningful use criteria.

"Going forward now we are seeing now healthcare vendors are starting to think about patient engagement platforms and are starting to incorporate devices and realtime data into a ecosystem that actually delivers better outcomes," he said.

Another distraction that prevents new care delivery solutions from taking off, Propeller Health's Van Sickle said, is the search for the "holy grail" held up in the industry: a "Farmville for health" (referring to the popular Zynga Facebook game).

"Ask Zynga, they've lost a quarter of their active users for the last two quarters now," Van Sickle said. "Engagement even with the best made games that we have is a very difficult thing to accomplish and so I'm really hoping we can see more emphasis on outcomes."

Circling back to the idea of focusing on the consumer, Van Sickle explained it's easier to aim for a cure or a solution than to keep pushing to engage consumers.

"Put the goal around a vaccine, right?," he said. "Nobody engages with a vaccine, it's sort of a perfect accomplishment of technology in that it eliminates a disease and the experience of a disease and healthcare required for it. So that's where I really want to see the goalposts put, and I think we'll make a lot more traction when we start heading in that direction rather than towards sort of the means to the end."

A point of contention for the group was over whether privacy was a barrier for consumers and product managers. Damani, a cardiologist, found the privacy issue to be "completely overblown" and that consumers in his office don't mind sharing data if it's done in the right context.

"Most of the solutions and the technology for the solutions is in your local retail store," he said. "So I don't think anyone cares whether someone can hack into how many steps they've taken or what their weight was. What they really want is to be healthier. I think if we're going to move connected health and digital health forward, we have to get across this. I'll be honest with you it's the 50 and up that really care about this but you have 20-year-olds posting pictures on Facebook, they don't care about privacy. Neither do 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds."

O'Reilly disagreed with this take on privacy and instead found it to be the "civil rights issue of our time". Young people have a different sense of privacy, he said, and while they have an online life, they still care about the repercussions.

"People either dismiss it or they think it's a barrier that can't be addressed and my only message is that like every other industry you have to embrace it," he said. "You're going to make mistakes and there are going to be companies and efforts that violate trust and pay for it, but you have to embrace it because it's too important. The healthcare applications of connected mobile technologies are so fundamental and so important that we have to embrace these questions and figure out the answers."

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