Recently I came across yet another media article with suggestions as to how digital health products can gain more widespread adoption. The writer notes that “we can learn a lot from the pharma and healthcare industries,” and goes on to discuss the importance of engaging the doctor.
This article, like many I read, doesn’t acknowledge the downsides of using pharma’s tactics.
I have to assume that this is because from a business perspective, there aren’t a lot of downsides to pharma’s tactics. Pharma, along with many other healthcare industry players (hospitals, insurance companies, device manufacturers) has overall been extremely successful from a business standpoint.
So if the intent is to help digital health companies succeed as businesses, then by all means one should encourage them to copy pharma’s tactics.
But as we know, what works for business has often not worked well for serving the needs of individual patients, or to society from a health services and public health perspective.
This despite the fact that pretty much all businesses in healthcare proclaim that they are there to serve patients and society. Of course they will say this. This isn’t surprising at all.
What I have found a bit surprising, though, is the extent to which most of the media coverage of digital health is business-oriented and business-boosting. (I suppose this is because tech has always had a very close relationship with business and consumerism.)
Now, I do firmly believe that digital health innovations are absolutely essential to solving the country’s most pressing healthcare problems. I also believe that dynamic entrepreneurial energy is generally better at developing these innovations than are academic institutions or government entities.
But I worry about the extent to which business and entrepreneurs are directing the conversation on which innovations and approaches will best serve individual patients, and society. Business’ track record in this respect is really bad. Which makes sense: once a company has invested time and resources in bringing a product or service to market, they are going to try to sell it to the rest of us, whether or not it’s good for us.
In other words, although we need business innovations to help drive much-needed change in healthcare, I’m leery of letting business dominate the outreach to clinicians and society.
So, here are some related issues that I’ve been pondering lately:
- How to encourage the media coverage of digital health to include a little more “in the interest of patients and the public” perspective?
- How to help clinicians, academics, and health services experts learn about digital health, in a less marketing-directed way? (I’ve been informally polling my colleagues recently: most have never heard of e-patients and know very little about digital health. This means we have hardly anyone without financial ties to industry who can talk to tech journalists or others.)
- How to foster more constructive interchanges between the digital health entrepreneurs, who have terrific new ideas, and health experts, who should be critiquing these new ideas and providing feedback on how the implications of adopting these products at scale, and how these products might be viewed in a broader health context?
For all these questions, it seems we would need to start by providing clinicians and healthcare experts with a way to keep current with digital health trends and technologies. And this way should not be unduly influenced by marketing efforts or entrepreneurial enthusiasm.
How should clinicians, academics, and non-profit experts learn about digital health?
It’s normal for the providers of these new technologies to volunteer to do the job (as pharma has historically done when it comes to new drugs), but we need viable alternatives that have fewer financial stakes in the education effort.
The problem, of course, is that our usual sources of more-objective-information-in-true-service-of-healthcare seem really unsuited to helping us understand emerging digital health technologies. For instance, by the time any high-quality peer-reviewed research is published, the technology studied is likely to be hopelessly outdated. Likewise, expert guidelines and panels take way too long to digest, process, and present their findings. So clinicians can’t keep current by relying on these time-tested methods of curating information.
Also, there is also a volume of information problem. I’ve been trying to learn about digital health for the past six months and it’s like trying to drink from a firehose.
Hence, I’ve been thinking that what I personally really need is a source of up-to-date commentary and information on digital health that is sensibly curated, and tailored to my clinical interests, i.e. the healthcare of medically complex older adults. To date, I’ve found sites that are related to caregiving, or consumer technology for seniors, or healthy aging, or evaluating assisted living. But none about technology for geriatric healthcare in particular.
So here is my latest idea: I’ve recently been wondering if something like the Journal Watch model could be adapted, to help clinicians keep up with key developments in digital health.
What I particularly like about Journal Watch is:
- They review several key published articles every week, most of which are clinically relevant. (Occasionally there’s something about an exciting new bioscience breakthrough.)
- They provide a nice concise summary of the research.
- Each article summary is accompanied by a short comment written by a clinician-editor. The comment is by far the most valuable thing to read, since these editors tend to have an excellent grounding in the pragmatic aspects of clinical work, as well as a good understanding of the health-services implications of the study.
For comparison to the idea above, consider something like iHealthBeat.org. It is fantastic that the California Healthcare Foundation provides this service. And yet, I unsubscribed a while back.
Why? The snippets are too varied – nobody has selected items of special interest to clinicians and academics focused on medical care for older adults. Plus, the snippets themselves don’t feel like they’ve been selected and edited by someone who understands my needs and priorities – unsurprising since they aren’t chosen or commented on by another general internist.
Just as Journal Watch is intended to help clinicians keep up with “Medicine that Matters,” we need a Digital Health Watch service for clinicians, tailored for different specialties, to help clinicians and academics keep up with “Digital Health that Matters.”
Journal Watch, of course, isn’t free. But then again, most good sources of information aren’t.
If we had a good method for clinicians to learn about digital health, then we might see more healthcare experts constructively critiquing the efforts of the digital health entrepreneurs.
This might not be great for every company’s business, but could be very good for clinicians, individual patients and society.
Summing it up
It’s understandable that the entrepreneurial digital health community will want to engage and educate clinicians. However, as we’ve seen with pharma and other profit-oriented healthcare industries, there are significant downsides to letting business dominate and direct clinician education.
To date I’ve found that many of my colleagues in academia know little about digital health, or emerging technology innovations. This makes it difficult for medicine’s expert community to thoughtfully engage and critique the ideas of digital health entrepreneurs.
The overall healthcare needs of society would be much better served if clinicians and academics could learn about digital health via sources that have no significant financial conflict of interest. I would love to find a “Digital Health Watch” service similar to Journal Watch.
Leslie Kernisan is an internal medicine physician and geriatrician who blogs at GeriTech.