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Digital health has failed, but that doesn’t mean the future is hopeless

Digital health must ground its functions not just in AI and basic diagnostics, but in expert-informed clinical guidance.

Digital health has failed, but that doesn’t mean the future is hopeless
[Photo: Nature/Getty Images]

Virtually everyone can articulate one of healthcare’s myriad issues: it’s expensive, feels impersonal and corporate, and confronts people with cascading folios of options and choices they’re not prepared for. From my years of working in this space, I might summarize all these issues under the umbrella term of “uncertainty”—that is, the converse of assurance and peace of mind.

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Uncertainty runs deep in this industry. Patients, sensing (correctly) that there’s no easy way to tap into the vast knowledge of healthcare services, feel like they’re going it alone in a web of complex coverage stipulations, referrals, specialists, and co-pays. About half of Americans source their healthcare coverage through their employers, and yet, 80% of employees say they’re confused about their benefits.

Feeling like a number in the system and far removed from the old national memory of the “hometown doc” who knows them well and understands their circumstances, patients don’t know what care options and services make the most sense for them as individuals. And rather than dive into the confusing mess themselves and possibly incur unplanned costs, many forgo the care they need altogether.

The patients aren’t the only ones who feel this way. Employers are also burdened under the weight of too many options and services that they don’t know how to navigate. Finding a provider package or insurance solution that’s valuable to their employees can seem nearly impossible, while the balancing act of quality vs. cost-effectiveness continues to churn out results neither party is thrilled about.

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And so, despite all the resources, infrastructure, and finances that have been invested in making healthcare “better” over the years, patients and employers are essentially playing a guessing game, blindly picking an option and crossing their fingers.

In other cases of user uncertainty, countless industries have leveraged digital innovation as the solution of the future—with impressive results to show for it. We know the price and arrival time to our destination before we ever book our trip on a ride app, we scroll and click to have our groceries delivered to our front doors, and we access the world’s music libraries in an instant for a simple, small monthly fee. And yet, for the all the millions that have been poured into it and all the new, exciting services on the market, we’ve not seen the same level of progress with digital innovation in healthcare that we’d hoped for—cost and access issues still remain and are amplified for most. Healthcare is, after all, a complicated space, with big players each undergirding long-established portions of the system, and change in that environment is slow.

Its shortcomings and missteps notwithstanding, I still believe that digital health, or rather a stronger, bolder vision for digital health, holds the greatest promise.

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A more robust vision of digital health

What does that expanded vision look like? In short—more clinically robust, more inclusive, more personalized to individual patients’ needs—and all facilitated through a marketplace model that incentivizes lower costs and matches better services for everyone.

Up to this point, digital health services have been largely siloed off—separate from the mainline healthcare establishment and geared toward incidental care rather than long-term, whole-picture outcomes for the patient. Furthermore, that hometown-physician communicativeness and relational closeness that’s all but faded from traditional healthcare is starkly absent from most digital health offerings that deploy care via apps and screens: the relationship with the patient isn’t there.

To reverse this trend, digital health must ground its functions not just in AI and basic diagnostics, but in expert-informed clinical guidance. For digital health to provide the best pathway to care for all patients, we should lean into a more holistic approach that inspects robust research data (a core validating component of any digital health offering) as well as the unique individual, historical, and socioeconomic factors at play in people’s healthcare access and outcomes. By factoring in social determinants of health and broadening our clinical counsel, resources, and expertise to be more inclusive and applicable of diverse groups and populations, we as digital health innovators will be able to elevate the standard of care across the industry as we strive for greater equity for everyone, no matter their background.

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Looking beyond face-value medical issues to the patient’s record, background, and individual experience will be critical to providing patients and their employers with the services that make the most sense for them. Set within a marketplace environment that gathers all varieties of digital health and legacy healthcare players in one place, and where individual patients can see the options curated for them and their needs at competitive pricing, this vision outlines a transformative next step for US healthcare that breaks barriers and places patient outcomes back at the center of all that we do.

Throwing up our hands and opining on how “the industry” needs to shape up and be better gets us nowhere. We, as the digital health innovators and the self-proclaimed future of the industry, are the ones who need to be better. Where patients feel lost, we must provide direction; where patients feel invisible, we must make them feel seen; and where patients face uncertainty, we must work to cultivate assurance and peace of mind for our patients and their providers. The marketplace model and its promise of clarity, inclusivity, and personalization provides these solutions, but it is up to us to see this vision through. Rethinking the old models won’t be easy—but nothing worth doing ever is. It’s time to be the change.

Andrew Le is the cofounder and CEO of Buoy Health.

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