Has healthcare technology exceeded its humanity?

By Stephanie Nieman
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doctor talking with patient healthcare technology

It is highly likely that the following statement has been erroneously attributed to Albert Einstein, but we can hope he, at least, also had some internal debates on the topic.

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

At SJF Ventures, we’re both impact and venture capital investors, so much of our thinking is dedicated to how technology can dramatically improve livelihoods.  We’re also active healthcare investors who have participated in the growth of the digital health ecosystem and helped accelerate innovations in order to improve healthcare access and outcomes. We’ve seen the rise of electronic health records, cloud-based software, connected medical devices, digital health apps, data platforms, and artificial intelligence to improve health. And we’ve invested in many of these innovations because we know that healthcare as we have known it must change.

Healthcare costs are growing too rapidly, demand for care increasingly exceeds clinician supply, and our national health is suffering.  Tackling chronic disease through both a prevention and disease management strategy is critical to improving health outcomes.  About 86 percent of all healthcare spending goes towards treating patients with one or more chronic conditions. Almost half of all U.S. adults suffer from at least one chronic disease, and a quarter suffer from two or more. In 2014, seven chronic conditions were responsible for nearly 65 percent of all deaths.

The model of healthcare delivery must change. We are big believers that health must increasingly be managed outside of traditional healthcare provider settings in order to both contain costs and improve patient health outcomes. This is especially true for a chronic disease, like diabetes, a condition being tackled by several of our portfolio companies from different angles.

To enable extended care delivery to patients, we think the healthcare ecosystem needs both new technologies to extend clinician reach and new care models that deploy empathy and personalized problem-solving via human interaction. With real humans. We especially think people play an integral role in reaching populations that are hardest to motivate and, as a result, the costliest subset. The digital health community has often overlooked how important people are in the equation. While technologies help clinicians scale their reach and engagement and make the healthcare system more efficient, human interaction adds a deeper, equally meaningful solution. We need to give clinicians, social workers, health coaches, and care managers technological tools to allow them to dramatically scale what they can do better than the technology can.

Healthcare professionals should leverage technology to reach a growing number of patients where they are in daily life, create frequent contact points, and make clinician workflows as efficient as possible by channeling repetitive tasks and feedback loops through computerized systems. We should leverage people to do what people can uniquely do: build relationships and patient trust, share empathy, and problem-solve complex cases and unique pathways. 
 
SJF Ventures recently invested in mPulse Mobile because it provides a modern, patient-preferred channel of secure text messaging to reach literally millions of patients with personalized communication. It can also provide AI-powered virtual agents to answer questions and collect patient information. This technology frees up time to enable care management teams to focus on those patients and issues that need more human-centered help. mPulse’s product even enables a seamless transition from a virtual agent to a live clinician when certain issues are triggered to show that a patient needs human intervention.  We invested in mPulse because its value proposition demonstrates our thesis around technology and people. It allows both to achieve higher utilization, improving healthcare efficiency and improving patient care.

We’ve also invested in a company that leans a little more on the human side of care delivery via a network of specialized diabetes coaches.  Fit4D provides an example of how a network of Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) coaches can leverage technology to scale their reach but still provide the 1:1 human connection needed by patients who are out of compliance with their care plans and have high A1C levels. Fit4D's coaches have the experience and empathy required to build those personal relationships that help patients overcome behavioral and socioeconomic barriers so common with diabetes. Leveraging a combination of workflow technology and behavioral science algorithms, these humans (or coaches) reach a patient panel scale far greater than that which could ever be managed in person or even through basic telephonic software. Again, both humans and technology doing what each does best.

We can’t allow the buzz around the digital health community to forget that the challenges we face require multi-faceted solutions. People deploying technology, and not the other way around.

We don’t think technology has exceeded our humanity in healthcare, and we hope the digital health community doesn’t let it.

About the author: Stephanie Nieman is a Principal at SJF Ventures based in Durham, NC. SJF Ventures is a venture capital fund investing in high growth, positive impact companies across the U.S. and an active healthcare investor.