Five easy pieces: A simple overview of #digitalhealth

digital health

Not long ago, digital health tools like telemedicine and remote patient monitoring were almost the stuff of science fiction. Were they technically possible? Sure. But the technologies needed to make them happen were bulky, expensive and hard for patients to use.

Today, we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum. Digital health technologies are growing to be much cheaper and simpler, so much so that we’re almost smothered in innovations leveraging cheap, ubiquitous wireless and broadband Internet connections. And this is bad for business. After all, it’s hard to tell how new ventures in the space will fare when it’s not clear what targets they’re addressing.

Despite the exponential growth of digital health market, and a seeming increase in complexity, digital health ultimately breaks down into a handful of categories which are fairly easy to follow:

  • Telemedicine: This sector of the market includes not only video-based medical consults by providers with patients, but also phone and text consults. Telemedicine is increasingly being seen as “real” medicine by health plans, some of which are actually paying for it. These days, it’s delivered by proprietary Web and smartphone services provided by vendors like HealthTap or DoctoronDemand, though doctors could theoretically use Skype or Google Hangouts.
  • Specialist telemedicine: There’s also a separate arm of telemedicine — such as the teleICU or telestroke consults — in which remote specialists may care for multiple at-risk patients at one. This type of service is particularly helpful to rural hospitals, for whom it may be nearly impossible to summon, say, a stroke expert on demand.
  • Remote monitoring: This once consisted largely of expensive add-ons to devices such as blood glucose meters and wireless scales. The add-ons beamed the data wirelessly to PCs, which shunted the data to doctors for use in improving care. In recent times, remote monitoring has become affordable and flexible, thanks to the explosion of relatively cheap wearable health tracking devices.
  • Connected health: This is a broad term which covers virtually all forms of digital patient-doctor connection. However, it’s beginning to look like self-described connected health ventures are focused on building a digital health “ecosystem” linking up providers, patients, caregivers and families.
  • Remote testing:  Several emerging companies are championing this concept, in which patients gain the means to perform sophisticated testing at home. For example, they might be given an all-purpose health monitor or sonogram wand which can be used with a smartphone. They can then bring the data to a face to face visit or beam it to a doctor during a telemedicine consult.

There are some digital health categories which are still too new to even deserve a “sector” label yet, such as virtual reality-based medicine. But the categories above offer a current look at the swiftly-diversifying world of digital health.

Our recommendations:

  • If you’re going to invest in these technologies as a venture capitalist, sink your money in remote testing. The companies that make it possible for everyone from third-world doctors to suburban housewives to monitor their care are going to change the world.
  • If you’re a provider trying to figure out which digital health technologies are important to your future, look into ways of scaling remote monitoring and telemedicine. Both have near-boundless promise for improving the care of chronically-ill patients and making medicine more accessible to all.
  • Hospitals, care coordination tools are still at an early stage, so there may be no single place to buy them. But if you are investing in innovation, build them! Tools tying together consumer technology and community support with medical know-how stand the chance of reducing readmissions and lowering expenses.

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