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Barbarians at the Gate

By ADRIAN GROPPER, MD

US healthcare is exceptional among rich economies. Exceptional in cost. Exceptional in disparities. Exceptional in the political power hospitals and other incumbents have amassed over decades of runaway healthcare exceptionalism. 

The latest front in healthcare exceptionalism is over who profits from patient records. Parallel articles in the NYTimes and THCB frame the issue as “barbarians at the gate” when the real issue is an obsolete health IT infrastructure and how ill-suited it is for the coming age of BigData and machine learning. Just check out the breathless announcement of “frictionless exchange” by Microsoft, AWS, Google, IBM, Salesforce and Oracle. Facebook already offers frictionless exchange. Frictionless exchange has come to mean that one data broker, like Facebook, adds value by aggregating personal data from many sources and then uses machine learning to find a customer, like Cambridge Analytica, that will use the predictive model to manipulate your behavior. How will the six data brokers in the announcement be different from Facebook?

The NYTimes article and the THCB post imply that we will know the barbarians when we see them and then rush to talk about the solutions. Aside from calls for new laws in Washington (weaken behavioral health privacy protections, preempt state privacy laws, reduce surprise medical bills, allow a national patient ID, treat data brokers as HIPAA covered entities, and maybe more) our leaders have to work with regulations (OCR, information blocking, etc…), standards (FHIR, OAuth, UMA), and best practices (Argonaut, SMART, CARIN Alliance, Patient Privacy Rights, etc…). I’m not going to discuss new laws in this post and will focus on practices under existing law.

Patient-directed access to health data is the future. This was made clear at the recent ONC Interoperability Forum as opened by Don Rucker and closed with a panel about the future. CARIN Alliance and Patient Privacy Rights are working to define patient-directed access in what might or might not be different ways. CARIN and PPR have no obvious differences when it comes to the data models and semantics associated with a patient-directed interface (API). PPR appreciates HL7 and CARIN efforts on the data models and semantics for both clinics and payers.

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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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