Fulfilling Digital Health's Promise

Fulfilling Digital Health's Promise image

What’s New?

Digital health startup companies attracted a record $8 billion-plus in investments in 2018, reports Rock Health, a U.S. venture fund dedicated to the sector. That represents a 42 percent increase over 2017. Globally, digital health funding totaled $14.6 billion — 14 times what it was in 2010, according to StartUp Health, a company that invests in what it calls “health transformers.”

What’s Changing?

The surge in digital health investments has some analysts asking whether the field may be overheating, while others believe the sector remains strong and ripe for accelerated transformation. Whether record amounts of money will continue to be invested in digital health companies may come down to how quickly and effectively the startups can master the transition from predominantly tracking the personal health of relatively healthy people to delivering proven tools to better monitor those with chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

As CNBC recently reported, despite the vast sums poured into digital and software solutions to improve outcomes and lower costs, Americans aren’t becoming any healthier and life expectancy is dropping for the first time in decades. So, why aren’t digital tools having a greater impact on society?

Experts cite many reasons, including: It’s still early in the implementation cycle of many digital technologies. Much of the spending on digital tools is aimed at solutions for younger people — sometimes referred to as the “worried well” — who are looking for premium care and who want to track their workouts. Startup funding has been aimed largely at virtual care approaches; however, behavioral change in medicine is notoriously difficult, and might be too challenging for an app to solve.

Adam B. Cohen, a health technologies program manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics laboratory, told Modern Healthcare that more studies are needed to demonstrate the value of digital health technologies. “We think right now we’re in a validation phase of these technologies,” says Cohen, who also co-authored a Health Affairs report about the impact of top-funded digital health companies on high-cost conditions.

3 To-Dos When Evaluating Digital Health Tools

For health care providers evaluating which digital health solutions to implement, particularly when addressing patients with chronic conditions, keep these points in mind:

  • Comb the research findings. Evaluate peer-reviewed, evidence-based studies that specifically address the efficacy of digital tools, particularly tools that target high-risk, high-cost populations. Less than one-third of the 156 published research studies evaluated for the Health Affairs’ paper focused on patients with “high-burden” conditions or risk factors.
  • Watch regulatory requirements. If regulatory requirements change for companies developing digital health tools, this could shift the environment to one that promotes high-risk, high-cost patients, the Health Affairs researchers noted. The Food and Drug Administration began addressing its digital health policies in late 2017 and measures continue to evolve.
  • Look for clues in value-based care changes. “If value-based purchasing becomes the dominant model, digital health tools that have evidence-based value will be in demand,” Health Affairs researchers wrote. Value-based incentives could also spur further deployment of digital tools.