It's been a very, very strong year for digital health.
According to the recently released StartUp Health Digital Health Fundings Rankings, the 234 startup deals that were made in the first half of 2016 captured a record $3.9 billion.
The most popular investment category are the apps and services that deliver on improving the patient and consumer experience. No surprise, since healthcare consumerism is where experts see the intersection of healthcare systems, patient populations, and large corporations.
There are three fundamental trends shaping digital healthcare as we know it:
1. Apps are replacing drugs, devices, and even doctors
Digital health products and services are replacing existing drugs and therapies. Most products don’t require any additional equipment (“just download the app!”). For example, a Swedish app has proven to be as effective as contraceptive pill and doesn’t have any side effects. (Clue in Berlin does the same thing). You can even download a hearing aid (Mimi) for your phone!
What naturally follows is prescription digital health: it’s no secret that many of these apps save money compared to traditional courses of treatment. Insurers will start offering or reimbursing digital health products on a massive scale. Both Allianz and Humana (with 13 million US insured members) have in-house incubators. Digital health startups are helping insurers to reduce their costs and increase their value proposition (and collected premiums). Pharmaceutical companies are also getting on the medical device trend: Apple’s ResearchKit is a significant step into mainstream health tracking and GlaxoSmithKline already has a clinical trial using ResearchKit on rheumatoid arthritis in the works.
A consequence of medical tool proliferation is that some specialties may become obsolete. A number of companies (e.g. Zebra Medical Vision) are tackling radiology, where more accurate diagnosis can be performed via machine learning systems. They don't require human intervention (more efficient, faster, cheaper) and are also more effective, as they are based on larger data volumes than a human could process in their lifespan.
2. Preventative, pre-emptive, prophylaxis
Western medicine has traditionally focused on curing diseases rather than preventing them. Startups are increasingly targeting people’s health behaviors before they arrive at the hospital or clinic. Lark is a personal weight loss coach, Kolibree is a smart toothbrush for kids, Joyable deals with your social anxiety, “brain training” coach Lumosity has been validated in clinical trials, and Livongo is an app that manages your diabetes.
It’s a sign that we’re moving towards a health culture of preventive medicine over treatment. You can expect to see health coaches from all specialties bundled into apps tailored to fit your personal medical history and health goals (e.g. a stress management, osteoporosis, and weight loss coach for a menopausal woman). Your personal coach will almost certainly be equipped with a Siri-type encouraging voice and cross-application functionality (giving reminders, booking appointments, making purchases).
3. The rise of the consumer patient
One of the major forces driving patient empowerment is information transparency, a trend that places more responsibility on patients for their healthcare decisions. Today’s “empowered patient” and the “quantified self” movements are gaining momentum from people interested in learning about their health care. Increasingly, people are coming into data-based dialogue with the healthcare professionals about their personal treatment options.
Already, more than 70% of people consult the internet for health information and about 35% of those people are self-diagnosing. It turns out that over 40% of these people had their condition confirmed by a clinician (Pew Research 2013). A number of tools are already helping patients make smarter decisions about their treatment, such as Doctor on Demand for telemedicine, Grand Rounds for second opinions, or Amino for provider accessibility.
As far as treatment goes, patients can actually shop around for the best treatment option, searching by price or quality (MEDIGO), or by what other people say about hospitals on social media (Crowd Clinical), or for price of prescription drugs BlinkHealth.
These technologies are enabling patients to spend less time waiting for an appointment, searching for the right specialist, or getting the right medication. Catering to the efficient patient experience is a trend that's likely to continue as a focus for startups in 2017.
Pawel Cebula is Co-Founder and COO of MEDIGO, a medical tourism platform dedicated to improving access to healthcare worldwide. With more than 1,000 trusted hospitals and clinics in 35 countries, and an experienced patient Care Team, MEDIGO helps patients find and schedule affordable, high-quality medical treatment abroad.