The report surveyed 250 industry players including health IT startups, large employers, insurance companies, healthcare providers, academics, the government, investors and professional service providers.

Venrock report: Health tech players see Apple Watch as a clinical tool, 'Medicare-for-all' as opportunity for growth

By Tom Sullivan and Laura Lovett
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Healthcare professionals believing that the Apple Watch is going to be a clinically useful tool edged out those seeing it as a consumer fad — but just barely in the new 2019 Venrock Healthcare Prognosis report. The report, conducted by the venture capital firm Venrock, surveyed 250 industry players, including health IT startups, large employers, insurance companies, healthcare providers, academics, the government, investors and professional service providers. 

Apple Watch: What the research shows

Venrock asked 250 healthcare pros whether Apple Watch will ultimately be “no more than a trendy consumer product” or succeed as “a widely used biometric sensor and activity tracker to remotely monitor seniors.” 

Forty-eight percent of respondents called Apple Watch a "trendy consumer device" as opposed to the 45 percent in the "widely used biometric sensor" camp, Venrock found. 

The other 7 percent voted that it will be “the most successful atrial fibrillation device ever.” 

“Our prescient group predicted the outcome of a Stanford study which enrolled over 400,000 Apple Watch wearers … it is not an effective AFib device,” Venrock said.  

Medicare for All: A boost for innovation

A majority of survey responders said that a “Medicare-for-All”, a proposed program in which all Americans would get a voucher for private insurance, would offer new opportunities for business growth.

In the report, only 20 percent of responders said the theoretical program would pose barriers to growth. However, 62 percent said it would offer growth opportunities. 

“Medicare-for-All” and other universal healthcare proposals have become a point of debate within the healthcare industry, and innovation has started to become a focal point of that conversation. Last week, CMS Administrator Seema Verma warned against government run healthcare programs, saying they would hinder innovation. 

“One of the things that troubles me in terms of how we go forward with technology and innovation and harness that to solve some of our most difficult problems is there has been a lot of discussion about government-run healthcare around 'Medicare for All'," she said. "I think those proposals are the greatest threat to innovation in healthcare. The reality is government has often been a barrier to innovation.”

However, as the survey results illustrate, many industry experts challenge this view point. Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute and professor at Scripps Research, told MobiHealthNews that every other developed country in the world has healthcare for all its citizens and better health outcomes. He said the UK, where he led a review of the county’s digital health strategy, was an example of a country with a national health system that continues to see innovation. 

“That system…gives healthcare as a right for these citizens and it does everything it can to promote innovation,” he said. “They are not contradictory, they are not mutually exclusive at all. Step number one is to give everybody healthcare and then at the same time you can do all sorts of things to innovate. I’m obviously into the latter part of it. But if you don’t give [citizens] healthcare you can’t do anything innovative.”

He went on to discuss the thriving healthcare startup scene in the UK. 

“They have no shortage of innovation of companies—DeepMind for AI—all sorts of digital medicine companies," he said. "There is no reason why you wouldn’t innovate in healthcare just because you are giving everyone [coverage].”

AI and blockchain

Venrock also inquired about a pair of today’s buzziest emerging technologies — and artificial intelligence and blockchain met quite different fates in the survey findings, at least for now.

“AI is slowly finding its place, while blockchain struggles as much in healthcare as in other segments,” Venrock noted. “At the typical pace innovation matures in healthcare, blockchain may never matter, but there is great confidence that AI will get there with only 1 percent pessimism.”

That’s not to suggest AI is overwhelmingly being embraced today. Instead, 53 percent are still waiting for it to make a difference, while 39 percent said it is marginally making a difference and only 7 percent have found it meaningful.

What the near future may hold

Healthcare professionals struck a mostly optimistic note about the future emergence of new IT companies in the near future, according to the latest Venrock Healthcare Prognosis report.

“We might be at the outset of a huge innovation cycle, or we could be late into an aging, over-capitalized market,” the firm said in the report. “Opinions point in both directions.”

Taken together, 78 percent of respondents indicated a belief that new health IT companies will emerge during the next two years. Specifically, 30 percent said the increase will be significant while 48 percent said the number will “somewhat” increase. Those expecting a significant uptick in new companies rose from 17 percent in 2018 and 14 percent in 2017.

On the less optimistic side, 14 percent said they expect the number of companies to stay the same, while 8 percent are anticipating seeing fewer new companies.

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