What Good Is Digital Health If Patients Won’t Use It?

January 5th, 2015
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Our team often talks about the promise of digital health and how it can help empower patients over their own health. From Fitbits to ECG-equipped smartphones to remote telehealth clinics, this new technology is touted as a revolutionary change in medicine.

But what if a patient doesn’t use the technology? What if, like the legendary January gym membership, the wearable’s shine wears off after about three months? A recent Juniper Research study in the United Kingdom predicted that fitness monitoring wearables would dominate the wearable market until 2018—but only for fitness applications. An article in Forbes was itself dominated by quotes from various experts who claimed that digital health would not hold a patient’s (or doctor’s) interest until the technology could demonstrate the value of counting steps, breaths or pushups. And yet another study showed that patients thought digital fitness monitors could help improve their health, but they didn’t want to pay for the technology.

Getting patients engaged is vitally important to healthcare, especially in a system that’s changing from fee for service to demanding measurable outcomes. But what would it take to reduce the annual $290 million cost of patient noncompliance, as measured by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? In my opinion, we need to:

  1. Prove that digital health technology improves health. Currently, more than 25 clinical trials are underway on Fitbit alone, testing its ability to monitor diabetes, control lupus, manage epilepsy through physical activity, or the role of exercise in improving cognition in HIV-infected patients. This kind of information is what’s needed to convince payors, providers and patients of digital health’s value.
  2. Make data easier to wade through so that “results” are more visible. Too much data can make it difficult to see the forest for the trees, whether the “seer” is a patient looking at fitness results or a doctor trying to match the results to health conditions. A number of data experts and pharmaceutical companies are looking at ways to make these growing data easier to manage. But there is still a lot of room for innovation to fill this gap between “data” and information.
  3. Make a deal. Only recently have insurers (including the US Center for Medicaid and Medicare services) shown interest in reimbursing providers for digital health. However, an article in Bloomberg/BusinessWeek showed some initial enthusiasm about covering newer, cheaper wearable devices, and CMS has agreed to help manage reimbursements to help patients deal with chronic conditions. However, real results (i.e., outcome improvements) are expected by all parties, and sooner rather than later.

It has always been a challenge for healthcare practitioners to get their patients engaged in their health. While some patients embrace fitness and willingly follow treatment regimens, others wholly ignore such orders. We in the healthcare professions have still not figured out how to engage every type of patient. Incentives and awards can certainly go a long way, and digital health can help with the delivery—as long as that delivery makes sense to both patient and provider.

At Popper and Company, we examine many industry and technology trends to help our clients navigate the new world of healthcare and the rapidly changing healthcare system. We can help you create new strategies, ideas, and inventions to address true unmet medical needs. To learn more, please subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or send me an email.

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About the Author:

I have 20 years experience in clinical research, including leading diagnostic and pharmaceutical clinical studies in disease areas ranging from cancer to infectious disease to cardiology, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Send me an email.