Can Rah-Rah, Blah-Blah and Meh Accelerate Digital Health Innovation?


Can combining health tech “rah-rah,” health policy “blah-blah” and the “meh” of academic research accelerate the uptake of digital health innovation?

AcademyHealth, the health services research policy group, is co-locating its Health Datapalooza meeting, rooted in cheerleading for “Data Liberación,” with the National Health Policy Conference, rooted in endless debate about policy detail.

Sharing a hotel room, however, does not a marriage make. In order to get better digital health interventions to market faster, we need what I’m calling a Partnership for Innovators, Policymakers and Evidence-generators (PIPE). As someone who functions variously in the policy, tech and academic worlds, I believe PIPE needn’t be a dream.

The potential of digital health is obvious. Venture funding of digital health companies soared to $8.1 billion in 2018, up 40 percent from 2017, according to Rock Health, with another $4.2 billion invested during the first half of this year. Meanwhile, MedCityNews proclaimed 2019 “the year of the digital health IPO,” such as HealthCatalyst and Livongo.

Separately, Congress has sought to speed digital health innovation through bipartisan efforts such as the 21stCentury Cures Act and the formation last year of the Bipartisan Health Care Innovation Caucus. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is also pursuing innovator and advocacy group input on regulatory relief.

Easing regulations can rev up the speed to market, but it doesn’t address ignorance of economically important policy specifics – for example, the requirements of the oncology care model – that can cause innovators to miss important opportunities.

Similarly, successful product development and marketing can hinge on knowing the latest evidence produced by researchers about, for example, text messaging and behavior change.

Policymakers, too, miss out when they don’t understand innovation (for example, the possibilities of patient portals versus interactive apps) or the digital health research the big-name journals overlook. Case in point: the niche Journal of Medical Internet Research just examined how a new generation of “e-patients” with chronic conditions is actively engaged “in the innovation of digital tools to meet their health-related needs.” Meanwhile, back on the policy front, HHS only recently promised to reassess the paper-and-telephone CAHPS survey.

To turn the PIPE dream into something tangible, each group’s questions need to get specific. For example:

  • How have entrepreneurs seen a product affected negatively by unanticipated policy developments or surprising research?
  • What different processes of information exchange would Congressional and agency staffers like to establish with entrepreneurs and researchers?
  • How can researchers better mainstream relevant digital health insights with “Internet speed”?

The next step would be assembling a small group from each community to discuss the answers to these and other questions at length and off the record. I’ve seen first-hand what happens when those in different fields spend uninterrupted time together with no need to worry about public posturing.

There are, to be sure, innovators, policymakers and evidence-makers who’ve already burst out of the silos; for example, researchers as entrepreneurs and vice versa, and members of both groups going in and out of government. (A prominent example: Aledade co-founder and chief executive officer, Dr. Farzad Mostashari.) But there remain too few examples of barrier crossing, and no mechanism for establishing the kind of ongoing relationships and enduring collaborations that are so important.

AcademyHealth noted that health data innovation has become “an integral part of all efforts to transform health care.” Nonetheless, as HHS chief data officer Dr. Mona Siddiqui told this year’s Health Datapalooza, “The power of the data…is only possible when data can be translated into actionable information.”

The common objective is better health for every individual and a higher-quality, more cost-effective health care system. PIPE – a Partnership for Innovators, Policymakers and Evidence-generators – can help ensure that actionable health data fulfills its transformational potential for reaching that goal.

Michael L. Millenson is president of Health Quality Advisors LLC and adjunct associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. This article originally appeared on Forbes here