Digital health has made strides during the pandemic, and the future offers opportunities to improve patient access and outcomes as well as health equity.

Daphne Allen

November 23, 2020

7 Min Read
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Speakers during MedExecWomen’s virtual Fall Forum panel, “At the Cutting Edge of Digital Health,” discussed digital health's potential.Image courtesy of MedExecWomen

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for home care and telehealth has given digital health a proving ground. But are there ongoing opportunities for digital health to improve patient health? Speakers during a panel discussion at MedExecWomen’s virtual Fall Forum, “At the Cutting Edge of Digital Health,” believe so.

“We’ve been seeing this trend toward virtual care, or telehealth, or remote monitoring, and certainly COVID only accelerated that shift . . .and it’s here to stay at this point,” said Meghna Eichelberger, partner and associate director, medical technologies at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), who moderated the panel discussion. Participants included Jodi Eddy, SVP, chief information and digital officer, Boston Scientific Corp.; Luba Greenwood, senior lecturer at Harvard University and former head of strategic business development at Verily (Google Life Sciences); and Anjana Harve, senior VP & CIO, Fresenius Medical Care NA. 

Harve referred to “the biggest experiment COVID threw all of us in. It’s really forcing a lot of good discussions on things we may have hesitated about in the past and opening up the doors that would have taken years for a conservative industry” to open.

“We’ve certainly hit a tipping point in telehealth adoption—they say that 70% of visits have been virtual during the pandemic,” explained Eddy. “You can imagine how that will balance out—maybe 50% . . . will be virtual long term. But what it means is that virtual care tools will be accelerated, technologies will improve, and it will lead to even greater adoption.” As an example she offered Boston Scientific’s augmented reality platform to support remote procedures, Ask Angie. “The use of Ask Angie quadrupled in April of 2020, so you can see the momentum that was built very quickly there,” she said.

As to the “role that digital health plays to support procedures,” Eddy explained that “digital health bridges three major traditional hurdles to quality care.” She pointed to issues around access to information, including information off devices; adherence to guidelines in process or workflow improvements; and the issue of geographical isolation or distance, which this year has involved social distancing. “If you can get over these hurdles, you unlock incredible opportunities to improve patient care,” she said. “We are seeing really innovative solutions start to emerge, and now you take that data generated from these digital health solutions and combine it with the power of analytics, and we get to more accurate clinical decision-making. Momentum continues to build here through these different areas, and for me there’s never been a more exciting time to be in digital health and in healthcare because all of these opportunities.”

Developing New Digital Health Solutions to "Empower Patients"

Medtech companies are investing in digital health solutions for new solutions. A survey held during the virtual event showed that 48% of survey respondents are using digital to enable new business and business models for the company and customers (e.g., digital clinical trials, telehealth).

For instance, Harve explained that Fresenius Medical Care is “focusing on digital tools to empower patients . . . to plan and track their own health,” such as “tracking daily treatment information, ordering supplies, communicating with care teams.”

In addition, Fresenius is “looking at the data from our devices—our dialysis machines—and to see how we can bring that information to really up the care of patients,” Harve continued. For example, “in our clinics, we have tons of data that’s flowing through—a lot of critical information that goes through the machines—how do we pull that together to help decision-making from a clinical perspective?”

Furthered Eddy: “How can we improve patient care through digital solutions? When you mix data and algorithms with medtech and devices, you can save lives. My favorite example from Boston Scientific is our HeartLogic product, which improves patient care through data and digital solutions . . . . Imagine that you or one of your loved ones have a heart condition such as heart failure and you have an implantable defibrillator that will give you a life-saving shock if you go into cardiac arrest. You are living with knowledge that you are risk of hospitalization due to heart failure and it’s higher than average. Imagine if your doctor has your specific data from your heart, which is continuously monitored. Your doctor can monitor and analyze trends and potentially detect a heart failure event weeks before it [would] happen. . . now you have a very meaningful conversation with your doctor on what specific actions you can take . . . to me that is meaningful innovation and that is really improving patient care through digital solutions.”

Tech companies are disrupting the medical device market and coming up with new business models, noted Greenwood. Much of this work is focused on “virtual care,” and the aim would be to “work with payers and medtech companies in order to get conditions to be managed at home—this is where virtual care is going and from the tech perspective a lot of innovation is happening.”

Addressing Challenges

Data can present challenges. Harve said that “it’s fantastic that you can get a lot of data,” but “a lot of data” can be “information overload. . . . If there’s too much information and if you can’t parse it out and make meaningful decisions out of it . . . what are you going to do with it?”

Greenwood said that medical device companies have to figure out “the smallest [amount] of information and the most beautiful way to present [it] to physicians so that it’s not information overload but enough to make an informed decision, and even better, linked to EMRs, for example.”

Maintaining data security and privacy are other challenges that must be balanced with the need for data access. “To really unlock all of this [potential for digital health], it has to go beyond four walls to become that care continuum across many different organizations,” Harve said. “I do think that security and privacy are probably at the tip of the iceberg.”

Improving Health Equity

Eichelberger pointed out that “digital health has a really big opportunity to play a role in improving equity and making sure we are reaching those other populations and getting care to them.”

Eddy said that there are “dramatic health inequities.” For instance, she shared statistics that “nonwhites are almost half as likely as whites to get preventive treatment for heart disease.”

She said that “access to digital tools can help solve access to physicians,” adding “we also have to make sure that patients have access to technology.” She added that “the question quickly becomes, ‘How do we design technology to be as inclusive as possible?’ ”

Harve said that “access to information is the key that makes it a level playing field.” There is also the possibility of “personalization—it’s about really understanding our patients and meeting patients where they want to be met.”

It is also important to “design with the patient in mind,” said Harve. “But make sure the sample is really unbiased so we can get a mirror of the types of patients who truly use our products and services—how do we make sure that we bring that right voice from the design phase so that whatever we produce really ends up being relevant for each of those groups.”

Asked Greenwood: “Who’s writing your algorithms? Are you looking at all the variables you should be? Do you go to the basement and see your data scientists? Who are they, and are they designing with all the variables in mind?

“Include diverse patients in your clinical trials,” she continued. “Digital tools can be remarkable at identifying patients who could benefit and matching them to the trial.”

Maria Shepherd, President, Medi-Vantage and a founder of MedExecWomen, introduced the panel. Of the Fall Forum she said that “it was an enormous success and a tremendous opportunity for these executives to discuss strategy, readiness for the second surge, new competitors like Apple and Google Health, and more.”

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About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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