The digital revolution we’re all waiting for

by John Reiners

Healthcare is the area where I’ve always thought digital technology would lead to the greatest leap forward in human well-being. For example, Eric Topol’s “The Patient Will See You Now” portrays a convincing vision of how digital can transform healthcare for all of our benefit. Yet the industry tends to be conservative and slow to change, for understandable reasons. So when the Digital Healthcare World Congress visited London last month I was keen to check on progress.

The two days of presentations are a good way to get an overview, with a range of different perspectives—suppliers (the big beasts and start-ups), experts and analysts, investors, and medical practitioners. They cover long-term visions, solution pitches, and implementation stories. You can also learn from who isn’t presenting and what isn’t said—for example, no Google, Microsoft, Cisco, or Apple, despite their significant investments in this market, and no presentations offering easy cures on inter-operability and security of personal health data. Many of the most valuable insights were from side discussions with other delegates during the breaks. To summarise my top 5 takeaways:

  1. There is rapid, exciting innovation: There are many well-funded start-ups bringing innovative digital healthcare solutions to market. For example, we heard from a Danish start-up with a Hypnosis app. Many use artificial intelligence to provide pre-primary care, though these work best with wellness and minor ailments (about 80% of all primary-care consultations). I loved the idea of swallowing a pill as an alternative to a colonoscopy.
  2. Perhaps the greatest long-term prospects will be related to genomics. With the speed and efficiency of genome processing increasing at 1.5 times the pace of Moore’s law and parallel advances in data analytics, we are seeing more and more precision and personalised health solutions (as described in our study with SAP, Healthcare gets Personal).
  3. Large players are establishing their platforms. They are continuing to invest heavily. IBM’s Watson and GE’s Predix are attracting networks of developers. We also heard from Orange and ARM. We are still at early stages, however, with presentations focusing more on opportunities ahead than achievements to date.
  4. Sharing data remains a huge problem, a result of regulatory constraints, competing proprietary standards (e.g., on electronic health records (EHRs)), data quality, institutional resistance, and ongoing security concerns. For example, one solution provider based in southern California described his client base as northern California and China, as the complex regulatory map in the US makes it impossible to deploy across other US states. US hospitals continue to print and fax patient data rather than share EHRs or even use email. Connectivity between devices is not universally reliable enough to cope with the scale of information needed for many Telehealth applications.
  5. More compelling business models are needed to drive consumer adoption. Wearables are increasing, but have not yet reached critical mass. There is major investment in new solutions, but many of these will not succeed. Customers are confused by too many health apps, many offering questionable value. The industry needs to rationalise on the best solutions.

Overall, I am optimistic and excited about the prospects. The scheduling of this event and others like it is proof that a growing community is propelling digital healthcare forward. There is an urgent need for ageing and resource-constrained societies to develop alternative, more cost-effective solutions. The technology will continue to get better, for example with more open, secure, and reliable IOT platforms. We can see the future, but continue to be frustrated by slow progress in tackling the barriers to implementation. Digital healthcare is happening now, and a revolution will come—providing more personal, humane, effective, and lower-cost healthcare. Just not as quickly as we would all want.

John Reiners is Oxford Economics Managing Editor, EMEA. He manages research programs on a wide range of topics, including digital economy and international trade. He also follows emerging trends, like artificial intelligence and digital skills. He can be contacted at jreiners@oxfordeconomics.com