As health care digitizes, consumer technologies will have greatest impact, says panel

Wearables like the Apple Watch can generate meaningful health care data only if people buy and use them, said one speaker

The health care industry has long been a laggard in adopting technology, but that will soon change as the challenge of aligning doctors, insurance companies and patients is figured out.

Health care has always been 30 years behind adopting technology compared to other industries, said Chris Gordon, managing director at investment firm Bain Capital, during the discussion Wednesday at The Economist's Health Care Forum in Boston.

U.S. government efforts to spur the use of electronic health records created an infrastructure for storing patient data. The next challenge, Gordon said, is delivering meaningful results to people, an issue that Apple, Google and other major technology firms can potentially solve as they enter the health care space.

"Now that that information is available and can flow, you'll see big players come on and we'll be able to bridge that gap," he said. "The building blocks are in place to see that over the next decade."

"Disruption is finally coming to health care," said Unity Stokes, president and founder of StartUp Health, a startup accelerator aimed at helping health care startups grow, who noted that entrepreneurs from outside health care are entering the market.

But this upheaval won't follow the traditional path taken by startups looking to shake up a market. Instead of going around incumbent players, health care startups will work with stakeholders like the government and care providers.

"In health care, you need to work with stakeholders to navigate the system," Stokes said.

Combining smartphone technology, human genome sequencing and the Internet can have "a quantum-leap effect" on health care, but only if these disruptive technologies are integrated into existing workflows, said Anita Goel, chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym.

Her company develops portable testing systems to quickly identify diseases such as HIV. Nanobiosym customizes mobile apps to fit with current systems so the technology can "get outside the lab and have an impact."

To assuage data security concerns, people need to see how sharing health information can have positive effects on their health, Stokes said. Allowing a doctor access to health information, for example, can lead to the early detection of possible health problems, he said.

"It is about using data to affect people's lives in meaningful ways," he said.

New infrastructure is needed to better use this data and further digitize health care, Goel said.

A next-generation infrastructure will enable smartphones with apps customized for specific health care functions to collect data and send it to a cloud computing application where data analysis can be performed. When patients are armed with smartphones and instant access to their health information, health care will become more democratized, she said.

'"This is akin to what Google did with information access," she said, or how the cellphone gave more people access to telecommunications.

And with the "Internet of things" placing sensors in cars, homes and on bodies, among other places, health care data will include more personal information and become more consumer driven.

"The home will become a major part of our health care," said Stokes.

The greatest health IT innovations will come from consumer products, like the recently announced Apple Watch, and products containing sensors, instead of more industrial products like implants, Bain Capital's Gordon said.

Apple Watch will get scores of people to wear a health monitor, Stokes said, and "if you get a million people to wear it, that can be meaningful."

The challenge is getting consumers to pay for health care, Gordon said. People have no issues paying for cable, but scoff at the cost of a health insurance co-pay and may dismiss purchasing expensive consumer devices if they can't see their benefit.

"For a consumer innovation to break through, it has to be interesting enough for people to buy it," Gordon said.

Government rules controlling the sharing of health care information may require a revamp as care becomes more centered around the people being able to share their data with others, said Gordon.

"We have to have legislative framework in place to get that [data] to consumers," he said, adding that he sometimes thinks this is unachievable.

When people are allowed easy access to their data, future health care will place the individual in control of their health, Goel said. The information generated from a doctor's visit, and the data analysis around it, will be accessible from a patient's mobile device, she said. This will allow more personalized care options instead of the current model that dispenses care by visiting doctors in a way akin to an assembly line.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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