Opinion: AI, privacy and APIs will mold digital health in 2020

Babyscripts CEO Anish Sebastian outlines major tech-driven trends to keep an eye on for the new year.
By Anish Sebastian
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About the author: Anish Sebastian co-founded Babyscripts in 2013, which has partnered with dozens of health systems for its data-centric model in prenatal care. As the CEO of the startup, Anish has focused his efforts on product and software development, as well as evidence-based validation of their product. Prior to this, he founded a research analytics startup and served as a senior tech consultant at Deloitte.

Last month saw the rollout of the latest upgrades to Amazon’s Echo speaker line: earbuds, glasses and a ring that connect to Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa. These new products are just three examples of a growing trend to incorporate technology seamlessly into our human experience, representing the ever-expanding frontiers for technology that have moved far past the smartphone.

These trends and others are going to make a big impact in the healthcare space, especially as providers, payers and consumers alike slowly but surely recognize the need to incorporate tech into their workflows to meet the growing consumer demand for digital health tools. At the same time, the data-hungry nature of these innovations is creating its own problems, driving a discussion around privacy and security that is louder and more urgent than ever.

Here are three trends to look out for in the coming year:

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are growing into themselves

It’s been quite a few years since AI has emerged from the pages of science fiction into our day-to-day reality, and the healthcare industry has provided a fertile proving ground for all aspects of its innovations. From software that analyzes medical data to identify patients for clinical trials in minutes, to software that analyzes medical images to diagnose tumors in milliseconds; from chatbots that perform administrative tasks like setting up an appointment to chatbots that empathize with human emotion and manage mental anxiety; AI in digital health has evolved by leaps and bounds. 

In 2020, we will continue to see AI and ML push boundaries, while at the same time mature and settle into more defined patterns.  

With the adoption of technologies like FaceID, facial recognition technology will be an important player in privacy and security — intimate concerns of the healthcare field. It can be leveraged to drastically simplify the security requirements that make multi-factor authentication a time-consuming process for healthcare professionals — on average, doctors spend 52 hours a year just logging in to EHR systems. On the patient end, this same technology has the ability to detect emotional states of patients and anticipate needs based upon them, and the success of startups like Affectiva, the brainchild of MIT graduates, shows the tremendous promise of deep learning for these patient needs.

Then there’s the tremendous capability of AI to accumulate massive amounts of data from monitoring systems, only matched by its ability to process and analyze this data. We’re going to see AI play a major role in developing predictive algorithms to improve clinical interventions and mediate hospital readmissions.

Meanwhile, FDA-approved innovations from Microsoft and others claim the ability of computer vision for assisting radiologists and pathologists in identifying tumors and abnormalities in the heart. While robotic primary care is a long way off, some view AI as a rival to more niche clinical positions. 

The progress and traction of AI and ML raise lots of questions: can algorithms predict risk of sepsis better than trained ICU clinicians? Can computer vision replace the work of the radiologist and pathologist? And even if that is to be the case, will consumers have difficulty buying into the power and promise of AI? The answers seem to rest in the industry working with stakeholders and policy-makers to develop the right frameworks for monitoring and regulating the use of AI.

Privacy and security are more important than ever

2019 witnessed the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and added several high profile data concerns of its own: Amazon workers paid to listen to Alexa recordings, for example, and the transfer of non-deidentified, personal health data of more than 50 million Americans to Google

As the current generation — fueled by smartphones, smart speakers, smart homes, smart everything — wakes up to the serious challenges to privacy that these technological efficiencies are potentially introducing, they’re educating themselves about data sharing and becoming more cautious about the information that they are potentially sharing with third-party sites. 

For companies that deal with special categories of sensitive data — like medical information — the stakes are much higher. Access to information such as mental health, sex life, family planning, history of disease, physical wellness, etc. could potentially jeopardize users’ job opportunities and promotions, and may even engender or perpetuate discrimination in the workplace.

In 2020, look for digital healthcare to establish increasingly tight security, clearly communicate privacy policies and provide more transparency around data use. 

The API economy

Interoperability is a major player in health tech innovation: patients will always receive care across multiple venues, and secure data exchange is key to providing continuity of care. Standardized APIs can provide the technological foundations for data sharing, extending the functionality of EHRs and other technologies that support connected care. Platforms like Validic Inform leverage APIs to share patient-generated data from personal health devices to providers, while giving them the ability to configure data streams to identify actionable data and automate triggers.

In the upcoming year, look for major players like Apple and Google to make strides toward interoperability and breaking down data silos. Apple’s Health app already is capable of populating with information from other apps on your phone. Add your calorie intake to a weight loss app? Time your miles with a running app? Monitor your bedtime habits with a sleep tracking app? You’ll find that info aggregating in your Health app. 

Apple is uniquely positioned to be the driver of interoperability, and Google is not far behind. They have a secure and established platform, trustworthy for the passage of encrypted data (such as patient portals), and command a brand loyalty ubiquitous in the US and elsewhere, not to mention pre-established relationships with the hospitals that are critical to making any true strides in that direction. It’s a position that Apple has deliberately cultivated: as smartphone innovation falls into stalemate, they’re reaching toward bigger horizons — in Tim Cook’s words, improving health will be “Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind.” 

These trends in digital health are not new. As with any innovations in healthcare, the process is slow and the cost of the payoff hotly debated, yet it is no longer a question of if, but when these innovations will start optimizing care, whether we like it or not. 

Digital health developments in 2020 and beyond

The next decade is sure to be a test of digital health technologies — but it will also test traditional health systems. In January, MobiHealthNews will be looking at the possibilities for digital health in 2020 and beyond.