Doctors could soon see an unexpected silver lining from the cloud of COVID-19: better data on patients. Because of the fear of going to the doctor, patients may drive a boom in medical devices that monitor their health from afar.
Venture capitalist Harry Glorikian, author of "MoneyBall Medicine: Thriving in the New Data-Driven Healthcare Market," said doctors are already using wearable technology to monitor our heart rate, blood pressure, stress, sleep patterns and more. Glorikian, who is based in the Boston area, said this usage of the technology will make a big difference in keeping people healthy.
“Because I have an Apple watch,” Glorikian said, “I’ve been doing the EKG that they have … and all of a sudden [the doctor] gets to take a look at me over X number of months that I haven’t seen him, rather than the one measurement when I’m in the waiting room.”
While wearable technology isn’t new, Glorikian said the pandemic is making the advancements more critical, since people don’t want to go to doctor’s offices.
“All of a sudden, now you’re giving people — I don’t want to say ‘no choice,’ but now they need these things. It changes how you get care, where you get care, who’s going to give you that care. I mean, you can see a very large business model shift if this stays the same way it is,” Glorikian said.
And many more technology advances are likely on the way. The first six months of this year saw U.S. digital health companies collect nearly $5.5 billion in venture funding, the most ever raised in six-months, according to Rock Health, a venture fund dedicated to supporting health care technology.
Jed Constantz, a health care consultant who specializes in primary care finance and delivery, said he's excited by the possible advancements in technology, but added that as tech wizards rush to create new stuff, they need to think very carefully about how medicine has been practiced.
"All too often, the technology has attempted to re-engineer the process of care rather than leverage the most efficient process of care. And so the venture capital, investor-backed efforts — I have found them to be largely ignorant. And they wonder why they don’t get traction,” Constantz said.
Constantz pointed to the creation of electronic medical records, which were supposed to instantly revolutionize medicine. While it has become hugely helpful to have all patient information in one place, it was an onerous process at first. Constantz said doctors and nurses spent much too much time inputting information instead of interacting with patients.
Bob Phillips is a family physician and executive director of the Center for Professionalism and Value in Health Care, a thinktank that says it’s dedicated to studying and improving the quality of primary care in America. Phillips agreed that health monitoring technology can be terrific tools for doctors — allowing for sharing data like blood glucose and blood pressure levels — but emphasized that the new information patients have been sending over the past few months has been the result of their fear of going to his office.
After all the online appointments and in-home monitoring, Phillips said, his patients told him what they want is facetime. And not of the iPhone kind.
“Some of those were people with lots of health conditions, and they really wanted to check in and talk about what they'd been doing for exercise, whether their weight had gone up or gone down, how it was affecting their diabetes. And some of them just wanted a physical. They wanted someone to touch them and tell them they were OK,” Phillips pointed out. “People want those trust and healing relationships, and while technology can enable that, it's not going to replace it.”
Phillips also said he worried that as health technology advances, there will be a large gap between those who can afford devices and those who can’t, exacerbating disparities in health care between rich and poor communities. He said that history has shown when insurance companies start getting involved, the cost of medicine — whether it’s procedures or devices — tends to go up, because people with insurance generally don’t care about prices.
Mai Pham, the former Chief Innovation Officer at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation, said that in addition to rising costs, she’s concerned tech firms will most likely want to produce gee-whiz gadgets that look great in advertisements, but aren’t very valuable to doctors.
“It's very interesting that you can track your heart rate and your blood pressure 24 hours a day. But for most normal, healthy people, that's not as much additional value. It's really for patients who have specific chronic conditions or other risk factors where that might become more important,” Pham said.
Pham said she would like to see simple, but not-terribly-sexy technology that could, for instance, help people remember when to take their medications.
“Things that automatically dispense medication for them, or something that will give their physicians more real-time data on which medications they're actually taking? Right. Or perhaps it's, you know, environmental data from their home or their activities in their home sent back to the physician that can help the physician track their progress — or their deterioration,” Pham said.
So far, Pham's concerns are justified. According to the venture firm Rock Health, much of the venture money handed out this year went to companies developing online platforms — for medical data, telemedicine, digital pharmacies and fitness classes — which the majority of Americans are unlikely to use in the short term.
But money is also going to things that could affect a huge number of people, like wearable defibrillators that can stem cardiac arrest and more efficient ways to deliver mental health counseling at a distance.
The fact remains that Americans are still worried about going to the doctor. As long that is true, people may be willing to try new technologies that they resisted before.