Health IT Innovations: Why a Cautious Approach Is the Riskiest One

Patients will continue to desire more from the healthcare system as its complexity continues to grow. We’re in the midst of an unparalleled period of health IT innovation on all fronts – including payers, providers and ISVs.
With the cost of hardware continuing to fall and the open source movement developing into full maturity, the barriers to entry in the health IT and digital health space have never been lower. That’s why disruption is now coming from all corners of the world. With enough blood, sweat, and tears, startups and early-stage companies alike can grab a foothold in today’s thriving markets.How are healthcare payers, providers and independent software vendors (ISVs) responding? Some are taking a very cautious approach to new technology, waiting to implement new applications and devices until they’re proven. But if they delay too long, they may get left behind entirely.

Where the Health IT Innovation Is Coming From

The examples of innovation are everywhere you look. According to Rock Health, $4 billion in venture capital money flowed into digital health companies in 2014—nearly the same amount as over the three previous years combined. With this frenetic pace of innovation, it’s getting harder and harder for healthcare payers, providers and ISVs to keep up with what’s cutting-edge and what’s yesterday’s news.

Case in point: most people would consider smartwatches to be at the leading edge of the wearables market. But a recent development could soon make them only a part of the broader mix.

A Silicon Valley company called Vital Connect has developed a tiny biosensor processor chip that’s only a fraction of the size of a penny. It’s said to be more accurate, reliable, and power-friendly than other trackers in smartwatches or wristbands. The biosensor can sit in a patch and take a wide range of measurements for days on end.

Of course, it’s not just the actual technology companies that are delivering the breakthroughs. Not satisfied with the dizzying current pace of innovation, healthcare consumers are getting into the game.

For example, parents of children with type 1 diabetes (T1D) must constantly monitor their kids’ blood glucose levels and administer the doses of insulin that their children’s damaged pancreases are unable to deliver. The advent of the insulin pump meant no more dreaded syringes for T1D kids. And continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) allows parents to see the glucose levels of their children on a handheld monitor just a few feet away.

But what happens when a child sleeps over at a friend’s house or goes to soccer camp? Parents are left to pace and worry—and to make lots of phone calls to check in with caretakers.

That wasn’t good enough for T1D parent Bryan Mazlish. So he designed a closed loop system that would monitor the blood glucose levels and administer insulin as necessary for both his wife and son. Now, he can easily call a school nurse or field trip chaperone if he sees a problem developing.

Rumor has it that various consumers who have a programming background are now working hard to put together “bionic pancreas” solutions that would take data from a CGM, put it through algorithms, and use the results to tell an insulin pump how much insulin to deliver.

The FDA remains a long way away from approving such solutions, but is also staying away from coming down on these do-it-yourself efforts as long as they are not commercialized. Either way, motivated T1D families are forging ahead and taking innovation into their own hands.

Your organization, of course, must answer to the regulators. But there’s a lot you can learn from these self-styled digital health innovators as you look for ways to commercialize the best new technology ideas for the benefit of your customers—and your bottom line.

Three Ways for Healthcare Payers to Not Get Left Behind

As I mentioned, the risk of taking an overly conservative approach to healthcare technology is that changes in the marketplace will simply pass you by. For a healthcare payer, that can mean seeing members leave in large numbers for a competitor that has embraced the innovative user experience, product offering, or partnering opportunity that benefits the members.

There are three things healthcare payers can do to lead the way in innovation:

  1. Form an innovation team that’s tasked with monitoring the latest digital health and health IT developments and evaluating their suitability for your organization and its members. This team will help ensure that you stay ahead of the technology curve rather than risk falling behind in the latest technology shift.

  2. Embrace the Agile and Lean development methodologies. Streamlining your processes will enable you to move quickly when the market changes direction. It will increase your chances of being the first to make enhancements and offer a new feature to consumers.

  3. Engage a small external development team to support your projects. This is more than just bringing in a few extra developers to crank out additional software—much more. Working with a small team of developers who have healthcare domain expertise will infuse your healthcare payer organization with new ideas and solutions and provide you with a valuable reality check as to how well you’re meeting the needs of your members. You’ll probably find that such a partner can also help your organization work in a more Agile and Lean fashion—because if they have been operating in this industry for some time, being Agile and Lean is their preferred mode of operation day in and day out.

Matt Bronaugh

Director of Client Engagements

Author: Digital Health Team
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