Last week, MobiHealthNews attended JP Morgan Week for the first time. While we took a pass on the eponymous conference, we talked digital health at the bevy of conferences, meetings, and cocktail parties that have sprung up around the investment bank’s annual life sciences event.
The distributed nature of JP Morgan makes it hard to pull out one overarching themes, but a few trends and topics of discussion stood out above the rest.
1. More attention to social determinants of health
The idea that people’s economic and social circumstances have a big affect on their health is hardly a new one to the digital health world, but 2019 shows signs of being the year that that observation starts to be backed up with action.
At StartUp Health Festival, almost every keynote speaker engaged with this idea in some way. Dr. Jill Biden, who came to discuss the Biden Cancer Initiative, mentioned the seldom-discussed economic divide in cancer care, which the nonprofit is now targeting with some of its initiatives.
“Poverty draws a line between surviving and succumbing to this disease,” Biden said. Speaking about a trip she had taken that morning to the Women’s Cancer Research Center in Berkeley, she added “For the women at this center, cancer is like the fourth or fifth thing on their list. We don’t realize the financial toxicity of it all. A lot of times, they have to skip their treatments because they have to go to work.”
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta premiered a short clip of his forthcoming documentary, which looks at deaths of despair in the white working class in the United States— particularly opioid abuse, suicide, and liver cirrhosis related to alcoholism. He spoke about a recent economic study out of Stanford that inspired the project.
“Typically economist studies are dense, boring, but this one was fascinating,” he said. “The conclusion they made was that if you look at every demographic in the developed world since World War II, all of them have increased in life expectancy except for one, and that’s the white middle class in the United States. It’s flat, even dropping in some counties across the country. For the third year in a row, the United States has dropped in life expectancy overall because of these so-called deaths of despair.”
Finally, Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson spoke about how his California payer-provider organization invested $200 million in fighting homelessness because they recognized that that kind of systematic intervention is part of providing healthcare to a community.
“We already know that a person’s behavior, a person’s genetics, a person’s physical environment, will impact their health much more than medical care,” Tyson said. “So what’s our role in social care as we think about the 12.3 million members that we take care of and the 66 million members that live in the communities in which we exist?”
2. Being a technology company won’t cut it
Increasingly, the startups that are thriving and surviving in digital health are ones that are expanding their missions and positioning themselves not as technology companies, but as problem solving companies that utilize technology in ways that make sense.
Todd and Ed Park’s new startup Devoted Health, which presented at a few events around town, is an example of this idea: a full stack healthcare company built around the idea of only providing the healthcare they would want for their own family.
ResMed’s acquisition of Propeller Health is another good example; it moves the two companies from being focused on particular technologies, like sleep apnea sensors and smart inhalers.
“I know we’re evolving,” ResMed’s CEO Mick Farrell told MobiHealthNews. “If you looked at us 10 years ago I would have said we were a pure play medical device company. If you’d looked at us five years ago I would have said we were dabbling in digital health. … If I was describing us in 2019, I’d say we’re a world-leading tech-driven medical device company. If I was looking at us in 2025, I’d say we’re a world-leading digital health company.”
Really this trend is part of a larger trend that people have been predicting for a few years: digital technology is becoming so commonplace that it almost drops out of the conversation as a meaningful concept — leaving solutions, rather than technology, as the focus for businesses.
“I think we’re getting to a point now where we don’t need a separate digital strategy, where digital has become just the way we do things,” NHS England Chair Lord Prior of Brampton told MobiHealthNews. “For young people in particular, but not just for them. They’re more at home with their mobile phone, whether it’s banking, booking airline tickets, or having a consultation online with a doctor.”
3. Governments are getting serious about big data
Government speakers at the conference were all about data. HHS Chief Data Officer Dr. Mona Siddiqui and National Coordinator for Health IT Don Rucker both talked about big plans for internal and external data sharing, toward the end of using real big data to solve problems.
“We’ve released over 2,000 datasets for public use,” Siddiqui said. "We would love to continue to push on that. And I think if there are datasets that people want access to, I think it is our job to make sure we do that in a responsible and secure way and we help to provide information to the private sector.”
Lord Prior also talked about big data as one of the most powerful assets the NHS is sitting on.
“What I’ve really noticed this week at the JP Morgan conference, just down the road from here, which is different from even two years ago, is that data has become the big new thing in healthcare, particularly in pharmaceuticals and biotech,” Lord Prior said on stage at the StartUp Health Festival. “Now we have got data. We’ve got 60 million people. We’ve got cradle to grave care. Every major disease has got their own registry, and now we also have genomics. We’ve just completed the 100,000 genome project. So I think we have some of the best data in the world, which is the raw material for many of the digital companies in this room and attending this conference here. If we can provide that data in a well-curated form and we can do it with public confidence, then we’ve got a huge resource in the UK and we can become, I think, the center for personalized medicine in the world.”