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The Consumerization Of Healthcare Can Only Go So Far

Healthcare’s entry into a digital, consumer-first landscape is rapidly taking shape, and signs of progress are everywhere. Those signs are creating a wave of enthusiasm for the “digitized” future of our industry – and rightfully so.

Wearables have shown the potential to encourage healthier living and promote wellness by providing visibility into an individual’s lifestyle habits. But, the utility largely ends there.

Most physicians are not interested in reviewing data trends recorded on a personal device because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued only a small number of certifications for the benefits they claim to provide.

There is no denying that wearables in particular empower patients with visibility into their health allowing them to take a more active role in leading a healthy lifestyle and potentially reducing their risk for conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

With new and improved wearables and consumer health devices arriving to market regularly, and increasingly more digital tools that offer patients the ability to play a participatory role in managing their healthcare, improving the patient experience has undoubtedly become the focal point for innovation.

Yet despite the enthusiasm and influx of new tech, a gap still exists between the vision for a digitized healthcare experience and substantive clinical benefits that could result from consumer technologies.

Signs of Progress

A win for the consumerization of medical devices recently took place when the White House announced a new rule to make affordable over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids available to consumers. The FDA then issued final rules for how these devices could be manufactured and sold. As a result, retailers such as Best Buy have started selling hearing aids, which should help to drive down costs for consumers.

Consumer devices have proven a sensible entry point for technology companies to impact the digital health space. About a quarter of Americans already own a fitness tracker and a recent survey from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows the majority of people are interested in owning one.

The investing pipeline in health tech remains extremely strong. Amazon, for instance, is flexing its muscle in healthcare, with its recent acquisition of One Medical, a primary care and telehealth provider organization. We have also seen Google expand its reach into diagnostics in a recent deal that will leverage Google AI for breast cancer screenings.

While it’s highly plausible consumer tech companies will make a run at reimagining the patient experience, we are still in a nascent stage of that reimagination and far from achieving the ultimate goal of improving clinical outcomes for patients through those technologies.

Additionally, it’s unlikely that consumer-focused technology can address some of the most pressing issues we face in healthcare – such as a diminishing supply of physicians, increasing regulatory liability and premiums for malpractice insurance and healthcare inequity.

There is an opportunity to mitigate some of these issues, but delivering quality care will always revolve around the relationship between patients and the personal care given by physicians, nurses and care providers.

Consider too, the complexity of patient needs when specialty-level care and treatment are required. The nature of specialist care is different than what consumer devices can do, where care is circumstantial and highly personalized. More is needed to close the gap between how consumer tech companies view new technology and how physicians – particularly specialists – actually use them for clinical benefit.

Healthcare still happens inside the doctor’s office

All therapies or devices in healthcare have to stand up to the scrutiny of how they impact clinical outcomes. Practicing medicine is challenging. We need tech solutions that can improve the day-to-day workflow of physicians and help to reduce the stresses of their work.

The greatest opportunity for health tech to impact clinical outcomes is within the doctor’s office. A gradually decreasing supply of physicians combined with pandemic-related burnout has the U.S. facing a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians, based on projections from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Without dramatic intervention, this shortage will impact nearly every specialty and deeply affect access to care for every patient in this country.

Automating more aspects of the clinical workflow, for instance, can help physicians’ offices improve the standard of care and it can play a critical role in mitigating high rates of burnout. The aforementioned AAMC survey cited several factors that have exacerbated the number of physicians retiring early.

Those include responding to prior authorization requests from insurers – a call for documentation explaining why a patient needs a high-cost specialty medication – and repeated data entry in electronic health records (EHR) systems. With the increased adoption of automation, physicians and their staff can spend less time on tedious administrative work and more time actually delivering care to patients.

Understanding these areas of opportunity can help health tech innovators develop and scale products to make a meaningful difference for care providers as much as consumers.

Combining innovation and clinical expertise

While we have not seen consumer-friendly healthcare reach its full potential, it will undoubtedly make its mark on healthcare when it impacts the work inside the halls of hospitals and physicians’ practices. There is obvious potential in preventative care, in particular.

Smartwatches, fitness trackers, rings, or even shoe insoles have shown potential as a monitoring mechanism that can proactively flag health issues before they become serious. Some believe we will eventually see new technology expand its reach into disease treatment which would truly bring about substantive change.

Think of the chronic health issues that could be prevented with a consumer population informed and motivated by health-related data, working in unison with physicians who can harness the power of that data with advanced AI and data analytics and improved workflow automation.

The devices and functionalities that will prove most valuable are the ones that will help physicians within the walls of their offices. No gadgets can replace quality clinical care, but they can impact health outcomes when they support our physicians.

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