Four Top Trends That Will Shape Digital Health

Future of Digital Health Includes mHealth, Big Data

Sean Chai, Director, Innovation Technology, Innovation and Advanced Technology at Kaiser Permanente

This was a big year for digital health transformation, especially for advances in personalized and connected care. Looking back at 2012, these are the four trends that I think will ultimately have the greatest impact on the future.

Proliferation of personalized mobile health technologies. 
Many will remember 2012 as the year when mobile health apps and sensors took off. In 2012, the FDA approved the first iPhone-enabled blood glucose meter for sale at retail stores in the United States. Another 2012 FDA approved mobile technology is a sensor that sits atop inhalers for people who have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Every time the inhaler is used, the sensor transmits data to a companion app on the user’s mobile phone that tracks information like the location of each medication discharge. This environmental data can be used to help patients and care providers better understand what triggers a patient’s asthma.

Looking ahead: The Draft Guidance for Mobile Medical Applications that the FDA issued in 2012 is more important than any single approval. It enables the regulatory certainty needed for apps to move beyond personal health and become true medical devices. The FDA says that it will oversee mobile medical apps that are used as an accessory to an FDA-regulated medical device (e.g. an app enabling health care professionals to view medical images on an iPad and make a diagnosis) and mobile apps that transform a mobile platform into a regulated medical device (e.g. a mobile app that turns a smartphone into an ECG).

Maturation of the Big Data ecosystem in health care.
The massive growth of the volume, velocity, and variety of digital health data creates both manageability issues and opportunities for greater patient insights. Many learned in 2012 that harnessing the power of Big Data can be costly. Organizations must hire skilled software engineers and analysts as well as purchase and maintain new infrastructures to effectively handle Big Data. This year’s insights and successful failures have prompted organizations to invest, a first step on the road to delivering personalized health solutions. Sustained planning and execution through thoughtful applications development, storage, analytics/visualization, and data exchange strategies are what will ultimately help organizations unlock their Big Data value.

Looking ahead: Although genomics remains in its early stages, it can exponentially explode. Finding a way to successfully manage Big Insights to eventually “predict, personalize, and prevent,” could lead to early detection of potential problems, which means healthier members, as well as fewer complications and admissions.

Rise of health startup accelerators. 
Through a network of mentors with medical, business development, and technology expertise, new startup accelerators/companies are incubating the next wave of digital health innovators. They believe that a new blueprint for technology-enabled, personalized, participatory, and preventive medicine is greatly needed to drive care delivery transformation.

Looking ahead: More health care providers will advocate, participate in and drive innovation co-creation and innovation learning networks to accelerate the flow of ideas and advances in care delivery.

Emergence of health care exchange and alternative care delivery platforms.
Individual insurance market exchanges, including the online exchange program which California is implementing, could be leveraged by millions of uninsured people and bring care providers new patients who were previously uninsured. Health care providers will need to improve their customer engagement strategy/technology to better communicate health plan values, inspire consumers to choose them, and provide quality care.

Looking ahead: The increased demand on health care resources must be offset by more attention to prevention and management of chronic diseases and alternative care delivery models. This year we saw the rapid proliferation of alternative models such as: retail health clinics, concierge clinical services, onsite employer clinics, and mobile health vehicles. These care models have effectively extended care providers’ ability to bring care and wellness into patients’ everyday living experiences. Enabled by guided self-service and virtual care technologies, they also serve as a low cost entry into a new service area expansion and provide new patients with a convenient way to receive support and care.

For all of the promise of digitally driven health care, technology futures often contain equal parts of hype and hope. IT must lead the way in sifting through the hype to develop an accurate picture of the benefits, costs, and risks of technology in the unique context of health care. What emerging trends and technologies are your organizations tracking?