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Digital health needs to prove its impact to providers, or go the way of the buffalo

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Primary care physicians need functional tools, not just flashy tech, to benefit their patients.

More than 9,000 people attended HLTH 2022 in Las Vegas in November, causing some in the industry to predict that the conference is edging out heavyweights like JP Morgan, CES, and HIMSS to be the “can’t-miss” event for health care stakeholders and investors.

The real story of the conference was how few of those 9,000 (nearly triple the attendance of the inaugural conference in 2018) were providers of care – primary care physicians and other clinicians who, at the end of the day, dictate the success of a digital health solution through its adoption and use. They have arguably the most to add to conversations about the current landscape and future of digital health. In the crowded halls at HLTH, they were borderline absent.

With the centerpiece of our health care system missing in action, attendees couldn’t help but be reminded of the extreme financial strain facing hospitals, as well as persisting issues of burnout and labor shortages. Even if health systems had been able to finance their providers’ attendance (many were not), the sheer lack of staff would be prohibitive to sending even one pair of hands to a conference that seemed to focus more on swag and spectacular installations than improving patient care and reducing health system costs.

As a barometer of the digital landscape, HLTH showed the digital health community must cut through the hype and start delivering better tools to physicians and patients – to address the real-world issues keeping health care providers from being in the room with decision-makers in the first place.

Despite some bleak economic predictions, investments aren’t drying up entirely, but innovators are being held accountable for producing measurable return on investments (ROI). Companies that can demonstrate real value to the people that matter – providers of care – have a leg up in a conservative investment market.

What constitutes “value” is more ambiguous. Industry decision-makers often speak about “value-based care,” but seldom offer evidence that digital health tools are chosen or measured by how they contribute to better patient outcomes.

While transition to a value-based system is an admirable goal, tools that demonstrably meet immediate needs are favored over those with only long-term potential. What are the proximate needs of providers of care, and what types of tools and solutions are going to make an immediate and measurable impact on their workload, the experience of their patients, and the bottom line of the health system? These are the questions digital health innovators need to be asking ― and providers need to answer.

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) is one example of a popular suite of digital health solutions that can deliver immediate results. It is not a silver bullet by any means, but it can deliver certain elements of care at home without round-the-clock attention from a provider, and serves as a safety net to patients regardless of their ability to access in-person care.

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Without the necessity for a human on the other end of a solution, medical practices can use RPM to maximize their limited resources while capturing more data than in a synchronous, in-office appointment. To be truly effective, RPM solutions need to be more than just a data-capture solution. Effective solutions will deliver actionable insights back to a care team, and have built-in protocols for regular or after-hours emergencies so that providers receive the data they need without constantly checking in.

Automation is another key to effectiveness. For example, without compliance automation, a digital health tool may require multiple nurses to track noncompliant patients and follow up with them to keep them adherent to care protocols and monitoring programs. Committing staff to following patients who are receiving care virtually eliminates one of the most significant benefits of virtual models, which is why automation is critical.

Another way to extend the impact and bandwidth of overburdened staff, as well as generate more revenue, is to reduce the amount of times that low-risk patients are coming into the office.

In the maternity sector, for example, RPM for vitals like blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar can allow providers to capture essential data outside of an in-person appointment. Replacing visits with virtual care solutions that function asynchronously, and are configured to trigger a care protocol in the event of an abnormal reading, can allow providers to open appointments and focus on higher-risk patients, while still capturing the global fee.

With more space in the schedule, practices can address their patient backlog and schedule elective procedures that drive higher revenue. Some practices have been forced by labor shortages to deprioritize these lucrative procedures. They run the risk of losing patients as well as money. Patients facing long wait times to schedule elective procedures are more likely to start shopping for other options, including direct-to-consumer solutions.

Of course, the price tag of a virtual solution is often a deterrent, especially for a smaller practice. Fortunately, many digital tools are reimbursed for more money than they cost a practice.

This only touches on the many opportunities for ROI in digital health, but the point is clear. The digital health sector is facing a “put up or shut up” moment, and the industry will not find success in celebrating unicorns and throwing over-the-top conferences, but in providing tools that will make incremental differences to the stakeholders that matter the most: the providers of care and the patients they support.

Anish Sebastian co-founded Babyscripts in 2013 with the vision that Internet-enabled medical devices and big data would transform the delivery of pregnancy care. As the CEO of Babyscripts, he has focused his efforts on product and software development, as well as research validation of their product. Since the company’s inception, they have raised more than $37 million.


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