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Tag: digital health

Being Human

The human connection is threatened by medicine’s increasingly reductive focus on data collection, algorithms, and information transaction.

If you follow digital health, Rachel King’s recent Wall Street Journal piece on Stanford physician Abraham Verghese should be required reading, as it succinctly captures the way compassionate, informed physicians wrestle with emerging technologies — especially the electronic medical record.

For starters, Verghese understands its appeal: “The electronic medical record is a wonderful thing, in general, a huge improvement on finding paper charts and finding the old records and trying to put them all together.”

At the same, he accurately captures the problem: “The downside is that we’re spending too much time on the electronic medical record and not enough at the bedside.”

This tension is not unique to digital health, and reflects a more general struggle between technologists who emphasize the efficient communication of discrete data, and others (humanists? Luddites?) who worry that in the reduction of complexity to data, something vital may be lost.

Technologists, it seems, tend to view activities like reading and medicine as fundamentally data transactions. So it makes sense to receive reading information electronically on your Kindle — what could be more efficient?

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Digital Health: Almost a Real, Live Business

While the evolution of the digital health ecosystem has seemed at times almost painfully contrived, it now appears to have reached the point where it requires but a few sprinkles of magic fairy dust to be truly alive.

The basic idea behind digital health is pretty clear: we can (and must) do health better, and technology should be able to help,

There’s also an ever-increasing amount of support for early-stage innovators in this space. A remarkably large number of digital health incubators have sprung up around the country, as Lisa Suennen captured with characteristic verve in a recent Venture Valkyrie post.

On top of this, a slew of corporate VCs have now emerged – many from payors, but some from communication companies, and even a few from big pharmas such as Merck – all keen to invest strategically in the digital health space.

Deliberately, many of these large corporations also represent likely buyers for the products or services that will be produced, so it really does seem like an example of the savvy external sourcing of innovation.

So we’re good, then – right?

Well, not so fast.

It turns out that many high profile VCs continue to eschew this space, other than perhaps an occasional investment or two. The reason? As one extremely well-regarded VC – with extensive healthcare experience – told me yesterday, “I haven’t seen a viable business model yet.”

Translation: how do you make (serious) money here? Where’s the revenue?

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Closing the Translational Gap: A Challenge Facing Innovators in Medical Science — and in Digital Health

The gap between model or potential solutions and solutions that work in the real world – the translational gap — is arguably the greatest challenge we have in healthcare, and is something seen in both medical science and in digital health.

Translational Gap in Medical Science

The single most important lesson I learned from my many years as a bench scientist was how fragile most data are, whether presented by a colleague at lab meeting or (especially) if published by a leading academic in a high-profile journal.  It was not uncommon to watch colleagues spend months or even years trying to build upon an exciting reported finding, only to eventually discover the underlying result was not reproducible.

This turns out to be a problem not only for other university researchers, but also for industry scientists who are trying to translate promising scientific findings into actual treatments for patients; obviously, if the underlying science doesn’t hold up, there isn’t anything to translate.  Innovative analyses by John Ioannidis, now at Stanford, and more recently by scientists from Bayer and Amgen, have highlighted the surprisingly prevalence of this problem.

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Seriously: Is Digital Health The Answer To Tech Bubble Angst?

As an ever increasing amount of money seems determined to chase an ever greater number of questionable ideas, it’s perhaps not surprising that inquiring minds want to know: (1) Are we really in a tech bubble? (2) If so, when will it pop? (3) What should I do in the meantime?

I’m not sure about Question 1:  I’ve heard some distinguished valley wags insist we’re not in a tech bubble, and that current valuations are justified, but I also know many technology journalists feel certain the end is neigh, and view the bubble as an established fact of life – see here and here.  The surge of newly-minted MBAs streaming to start-ups has been called out as a likely warning sign of the upcoming apocalypse as well.

I have the humility to avoid Question 2: as Gregory Zuckerman reviews in The Greatest Trade Ever, even if you’re convinced you’re in a bubble, and you’re right, the real challenge is figuring out when to get out.  Isaac Newton discovered this the hard way in the South Sea Bubble, leading him to declare, “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”

I do have a thought about Question 3, however – what to do: reconsider digital health — serious digital health.

Here’s why: Instagram and similar apps are delightful, but hardly essential; most imitators and start-ups inspired by their success are neither.  It doesn’t strain credulity to imagine investors in these sorts of companies waking up one day and experiencing their own Seinfeld moment, as it occurs to them they’ve created a portfolio built around nothing.

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FOO For Thought

Health Foo image via Paul Levy @Running A HospitalI cite this favorite quote from Max Planck in my book (and every chance I get):

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

I think this applies to all walks of life, not just science. Yet sometimes an argument so compelling comes along that, though reluctantly at first, one by one the old guard drop at its feet. This is what happened to me this weekend at the Health Foo Camp in Cambridge, MA.

First, what is Health Foo? Well that was my first question when I received an invitation to attend this strangely named meeting. A Foo Camp is something put together by O’Reilly, the pioneering digital media group. Started 12 years ago, these meetings are thematic gatherings of “Friends of O’Reilly,” hence “Foo,” intended to bring together a diversity of thought about a specific field. The camp that I attended was the second such gathering in the healthcare space, supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and held at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge. How can I ever thank O’Reilly, RWJF and Microsoft for this mind-shifting event?

As I mentioned in my previous post, the attendee roster was so full of luminaries that I frankly wasn’t sure that the invitation had not ended up in my Inbox by mistake. But mistake or not, what a privilege to attend! I spent the weekend getting to know the faces and the substance behind such familiar names as Regina Holliday, Paul Levy, Alan Greene, Ted Eytan, Susannah Fox, Gilles Frydman and others. And what still has my mind spinning is my conversations with people I don’t normally interact with — computational scientists, game designers, food advocates and international public health movers and shakers.

The most risky aspect of this meeting was the very essence of its success: we were to free-range. No agenda was set; space, food and company were provided. The resulting sessions ran the gamut from the usual nerd porn of probability to such far-reaching topics as memory and the role of faith, poetry and the arts in medicine (my personal favorite, where I got to play in the sandbox of participatory painting led by Regina. Take that, left brain!)

I have to say I spent a part of the weekend in a bit of a fog. What is gamification of medicine? What does “deep modularity” mean? But the full impact of such diversity of knowledge did not hit me until I was heading West on the Turnpike away from the meeting in the direction of home. It felt like a deep air pocket, and for a moment I couldn’t catch my breath.Continue reading…

Pills Still Matter

Reviewing “The Myth of The Paperless Office” for the New Yorker in 2002, Malcolm Gladwell argued that if the computer had come first, and paper didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent it.  Paper, it turns out, is a lot more useful than we typically appreciate.

It occurred to me that perhaps the same might be said of another product we seem to take for granted in the digital age – medicines.  (Disclosure: I work at a company that makes them.)

Medicines – you know, those little white pills that everyone loves to critique – are in many cases remarkably effective solutions to very difficult problems; it’s actually kind of amazing how useful some of these products can be.  What an incredibly powerful idea – addressing a difficult and complex health problem with a simple pill you can pop before breakfast.

I read a tweet recently asserting that physicians may soon prescribe health apps as an alternative to medications; my initial reaction: good luck with that one.  It’s certainly easy enough to envision how magical thinking about the power of health apps will soon be replaced by disappointment as app developers realize something drug makers have known for years: it’s hard to improve health, and it can be very difficult to get patients to stick with a treatment long enough to make a difference.

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Engaging “The” Patient

The digital identity of patients will come to the fore as the nationwide health information network (NwHIN) takes practical steps to support care coordination, patient engagement and quality transparency. These changes in health care delivery are the essential foundation for cost containment and arguably the essence of Meaningful Use.

Stage 2, as proposed, is a giant step toward care coordination and patient engagement. The focus on Direct and meeting the patient and doctor where they are – on the Internet – rather than where they might be (HIEs and PHRs) is both practical and empowering. But, what does “the patient” mean in a digital, networked system where patient identity is not always based on face-to-face encounters and snail-mail?

I doubt that anyone is arguing for biometric patient passports as a prerequisite for medical consultation.

The practical aspects of identifying the patient online can be seen in light of the Stage 2 mandate for Direct messaging across institutions and with the patient. Let’s imagine a paperless, NwHIN, version of today’s Release Of Information (ROI) request that enables one doctor to send records to an unaffiliated doctor under HIPAA and with informed patient consent.

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Medicine’s Tech Future: the View from the Valley

A few quick impressions from last week’s FutureMed extravaganza put on by Singularity University at the Museum of Computer History, a stone’s throw from Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

The event featured an exhibition session where emerging digital health companies (with some others) demo’d their initial products, followed by a plenary session introduced by FutureMed Executive Director (and former MGH medicine colleague) Daniel Kraft, and featuring presentations to the packed house by several leading innovators – including one of the developers of IBM’s Watson, which is pivoting from Jeopardy to clinical medicine.

Given the high density of reporters there – to say nothing of innovators, would-be innovators, VCs, and assorted poseurs (categories not mutually exclusive) – I expect there should be lucid coverage available elsewhere on the web.

Instead, I want to capture the three sequential reactions I had, which strike me as somewhat analogous to Haeckel’s Law (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny), as each response seems to reflect a distinct stage of professional development.

The inevitable initial, and most visceral reaction to this sort of event, is that technology is wicked cool, and will deliver us all; I think this two minute introductory video captures the vibe more effectively than any description I could offer.   I’m also certain any student of semiotics would find it especially rewarding.

Accordingly, even much of the informal discussion at the event seemed to revolve around Big Questions, lofty ideas, and the Next Big Thing.  New technologies and approaches – artificial organs from stem cells!  Computers that can read your mind! Bottom-up innovation!  Exponentials! – were discussed expectantly, the key question being not if, but when.  The remarkable progress many in the tech crowd had seen in other disciplines suggested that technology advances in health would be similarly achievable, and just as inevitable.

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Will Consumers Pay for e-Health?


Lots of health startups out there are trying to zero in on ideas that will improve the lives of patients with chronic conditions. And even though patients are the target audience of this technology, companies seem to be designing their products by first asking, “What will health care providers and and health insurers pay for?” It makes sense, assuming that these two groups will foot the entire bill for electronic health (e-Health) innovations. But it doesn’t make common sense. Why not design the tech for those who are going to use it in the end?

The discussion came up at the Digital Health Summit, a two day conference at the International Consumer Electronics Show. Health 2.0′s Matthew Holt moderated a segment called “Who’s Paying the Bill for e-Health?” When Holt asked a panel if consumers would be willing to pay, Senior Advisor of of the American Association of Retired Peoples Bill Walsh indicated that most AARP members would answer “no.”

“What they’re telling us about mobile health is, ‘Gee, this is interesting but why isn’t my insurance company paying for this? This is just another medical device,’” Walsh said.

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Why Getting to a Digital Health Care System Is Going to Be Harder Than We Thought Ten Years Ago

A leading scientist once claimed that, with the relevant data and a large enough computer, he could “compute the organism” – meaning completely describe its anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Another legendary researcher asserted that, following capture of the relevant data, “we will know what it is to be human.” The breathless excitement of Sydney Brenner and Walter Gilbert —voiced more than a decade ago and captured by the skeptical Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin [1]– was sparked by the sequencing of the human genome. Its echoes can be heard in the bold promises made for digital health today.

The human genome project, while an extraordinary technological accomplishment, has not translated easily into improved medicine nor unleashed a torrent of new cures. Perhaps the most successful “genomics” company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, achieved lasting success not by virtue of the molecular cures they organically discovered, but by the more traditional pipeline they shrewdly acquired (notably via the purchase of LeukoSite, which ultimately yielded Campath and Velcade).

The enduring lesson of the genomics frenzy was succinctly captured by Brown and Goldstein, when they observed, “a gene sequence is not a drug.”

Flash forward to today: technologists, investors, providers, and policy makers all exalt the potential of digital health [2]. Like genomics, the big idea – or leap of faith — is that through the more complete collection and analysis of data, we’ll be able to essentially “compute” healthcare – to the point, some envision, where computers will become the care providers, and doctors will at best be customer service personnel, like the attendants at PepBoys, interfacing with libraries of software driven algorithms.

A measure of humility is in order. Just as a gene sequence is not a drug, information is not a cure. Getting there will take patience, persistence, money and aligned interests. The most successful innovators in digital health will see the promise of the technology, but also accept, embrace, and ideally leverage the ambiguity of disease, the variability of patients, and the complexities of clinical care.
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