Digital health is hot. Consider the evidence.
StartUp Health recently reported that investors poured $5 billion into the digital health sector during the first three quarters of this year, double what was invested during 2013. (This is small change compared to what was invested in other industries, but it is a promising trend.)
Companies like Google Apple, Walgreens, CVS and Microsoft are seeking to shake up health with new digital innovations and initiatives.
And, hardly a day goes without another announcement of a new digital health startup, product, service or acquisition.
But, if you scratch beneath the surface of digital health’s rosy headlines, it won’t take long to find a less positive picture.
For example, my friend Anna McCollister-Slipp recently wrote in the Huffington Post about how patients are waiting “for the promise of the digital health revolution to become a reality.” Patients are still living in an analog world, with limited access to their data and an inability to communicate with physicians digitally.
The fact that we have a long way to go before patients experience the full benefits of digital technologies will surprise no one. What’s discussed less often are the daily struggles health executives and medical professionals face in their efforts to understand, work, succeed and innovate in health’s rapidly evolving digital landscape.
What Jim, Sally, Dan and Maria Have Taught Me About Digital Health’s Dirty Little Secrets
Over the past year, I’ve been taking time each week to speak with physicians, marketers, data analysts, insurance executives, consultants and others working in health from around the world. I’m seeking to better understand their digital health needs and perspectives.
These conversations have been enlightening and have revealed many challenges that I’ve begun to call digital health’s dirty little secrets. They are secrets because, despite their importance, you’ll rarely see these issues featured in news articles, blog posts and conferences.
I’m not talking about big picture trends. Rather, my focus is on individual, rank-and-file health executives and medical professionals. These are the people responsible for running the gears of health’s digital machine. If they aren’t supported and successful, the digital health revolution will be over before it has truly begun.
I’ll briefly describe four common themes that have emerged during my conversations by telling the fictional stories of Jim, Sally, Dan and Maria. They are representative of the many health executives and medical professionals I’ve been speaking with in past months.
Secret #1: People Are Struggling to Find Their Footing in Digital Health
Sally is a twenty-year health industry veteran. She’s watched as digital has become ever more important in healthcare. She (and the teams she’s run) have developed some innovative digital projects, but these initiatives have suffered from poor execution and misaligned incentives.
She’s very interested in transitioning to a position that will enable her to become more involved in digital health, but is finding it hard to understand the landscape and break into the industry. She’s also being told she has too much, or too little experience.
Sally’s stuck and wonders whether her skills, perspective and passion will go unnoticed and unused in the future.
What should Sally do?
Secret #2: Some Are Trying to Innovate Within Large or Bureaucratic Institutions Are Frustrated, Lonely and Ready to Give Up
Dan is a physician working in a mid-sized health system. He’s well-connected with other digitally-minded doctors on social media, attends many digital health conferences and is experimenting with using digital tools to help his patients.
But, the picture is very different where he works. Currently, leadership is focused on completing a very large electronic medical records implementation. He’s happy that his institution is entering the digital age, but is still frustrated. Many of the small, but meaningful digital innovations he’s championed that would help his patients and save money are being ignored and rejected by leadership. He has some support among his fellow physicians, but they are in no position to help him navigate the bureaucratic waters. Dan is frustrated, lonely and thinking about giving up on digital health.
What are some strategies Dan can use to overcome these obstacles?
Secret #3: Digital Health Requires Lots of Improvisation, But Many Health Workers Are Not Trained to Think Flexibly
Jim is a health data specialist working at a large informatics company. He’s part of a team that is responsible for finding new ways to use data to improve patient care, medication adherence and more.
Jim instinctively knows that using data in smarter ways will require new thinking and even a little bit of improvisation. But, while his team is very smart, they’ve been trained to follow specific processes and procedures, not approach problems from entirely new directions.
What can Jim learn from other health executives facing similar challenges about training his team to think more flexibly and intuitively?
Secret #4: People Are Starving for Practical Advice and Real-World Case Studies About How to Use Digital Health Tools to Achieve Their Business Goals
Maria works in a well-known wellness and consumer health company. She’s responsible for implementing a range of initiatives in mobile health for her organization.
For the past few months, Maria has been looking for case studies and, more importantly, evidence that will help her make sound decisions about what types of mobile health programs should be funded next quarter. She’s been attending Webinars and conferences and has met a few interesting people in mobile health.
But, she’s come to realize that what she really needs is to have deep conversations with a few other executives with experience in mobile health (on the company and vendor side). Hopefully, they can provide her with the data and practical advice she needs to move forward with confidence.
How can Maria forge connections with the right people, find the information she needs and achieve her business objectives?
How Can We Solve These Important Issues?
The fictional stories I related above are not the sexiest, but they represent the types of vitally important challenges people are facing everyday in digital health.
Now that we’ve gotten these dirty little secrets out into the open, what can we do about them?
First, although I’m pointing out many problems executives and medical professionals are having adapting to the digital health revolution, I think it’s important to remain optimistic, but realistic about digital health. Change is coming, but it’s not going to be easy to achieve.
Second, I believe that we have to spend more time focusing on building up health executives’ and medical professionals’ ability to rise to the types of difficult challenges I raised above.
This will require acknowledging that emotions, confidence, relationships and other factors can play a big role in terms of whether people are interested in, and equipped to, excel in digital health.
In general, we’ve been more focused on solving problems related to data, devices, software, analytics and more. This is a mistake because the human side of the equation is just as important as the technological.
Recently, I’ve been working to address the problems I raised above with my new Digital Health Maven Project. At the center of this initiative is a systematic process individuals, teams and organizations can use to boost their capacity to execute and succeed in digital health. Recognizing difficult issues (like the secrets I discussed above) is a major part of the project.
I also believe that people need time and space to openly discuss and jointly come up with solutions to the problems that are central to these dirty little secrets. This can happen within companies, during small group meetings, or even at conferences or other gatherings. The first, and most important step is to acknowledge our problems. Once we do, we can work together to find optimal solutions.
Now It’s Up to You
I recognize that it will take more than my efforts to solve the big problems I raised in this essay. But, I’m hoping that revealing some of digital health’s dirty little secrets has sparked your thinking and inspired you to tackle these issues.
Let me know what you think by responding to this article.
Fard Johnmar is a digital health futurist, researcher and co-author of the #1 bestselling book, ePatient 2015: 15 Surprising Trends Changing Health Care.
This December he will be hosting a unique event, the Digital Health Maven Growth Salon. It is partly designed to help health executives and medical professionals openly discuss, debate and find solutions to the problems that are central to digital health’s dirty little secrets. Click here to learn more about the event.