When I think of medicine, “innovation” is hardly the first word that comes to mind. A doctor’s office is always a place I can go to find an exam table, some educational posters the wall, and a guy in a white coat with more years of schooling than most tenured professors. It is a controlled and (for the most part) conservative environment built upon the foundations of tradition, scientific inquiry, and evidenced-based knowledge and for good reason: unlike the innovative and disruptive startup atmosphere we are so accustomed to here in San Francisco, a mistake in medicine can literally cost lives. Lasting change must be preceded by paperwork, clinical trials, and years and years of testing and validation. Perhaps the hospital will have recently adopted a fancy new EHR system, but for the most part the industry as a whole has changed little save scientific and medical advancements. The way we “do medicine” in the United States has therefore remained largely the same for decades.
Blurring the Lines Between Medicine and Tech
However, the lines are beginning to blur. The tech industry continues to evolve and innovate faster than the healthcare industry, but new technology and mobile applications on the marketplace increasingly place an emphasis on promoting health and wellbeing. On the other hand, physicians still don their stethoscopes and white coats, but many now also wear little screens on their wrist that not only tell them the time, but also their heart rate, step count, and where the closest coffee shop is. Medicine can be fundamentally different from technology, but that’s not to say that it has nothing to learn from the spirit of innovation present in the startup community. So how can we use this technology, how can we combine the best of both worlds to usher in a new era of improved patient outcomes? How can healthcare be a proactive, not reactive, force in the face of changing times?
How can healthcare be a proactive, not reactive, force in the face of changing times?
These are questions that American Heart Association, in partnership with Aetna and BrandGarage, set out to address at their inaugural Health Tech Forum this past September. This two-day event in Austin brought together over 150 visionaries for an invitation-only summit on how technology can augment medical practice and improve patient heart health. Attendees (ranging from medical school department chairs to technology CEOs) were able to work together to identify future health tech research opportunities and potential areas ripe for collaboration. Partly due to Austin’s in-between location, and partly due to the even distribution of attendees from tech, academia, and clinical institutions, but the atmosphere of east meets west was palpable. It was quite strange to see physicians in suits rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with startup CEOs sporting the same t-shirts and Sperrys that they attended college in.
What can we expect from health tech in upcoming years?
- Change is Imminent: There is going to be radical change in our industry in the next decade – with hospitals and physicians dramatically affected. The world we live in today will not be at all like the world in ten year’s time. We need to be talking about this, not just talking about how we make today’s world work better, and events like these are just the beginning.
- Big Data Leading the Way: Clinicians and researchers want cost-effective options for gathering data to improve their practice and research, ultimately to improve patient outcomes. Technologists and developers want to learn how to better utilize (and better access) the wisdom, knowledge, and expertise that only people intimately familiar with the healthcare ecosystem can have in order to better improve their products and services (and also hopefully improve patient outcomes). It is important to remember that a person is a patient 1% of the time, and a normal human being 99% of the time. Technology cannot only augment a doctors office, but also excels at reaching those people 99% of the time.
- Need to Bridge Health and Tech: Some physicians, when chatting with technology CEOs over dinner, expressed that they had no idea these these tools existed, and would love to be able to use these tools in trials ASAP to see how they can be adopted. In response, technologists stated that they also would have loved to have access to physicians, researchers, and clinical trials to validate their tools and increase market penetration; many a company has gone under because they failed to make these critical connections. We need to therefore find a balance in the healthy flow of ideas between the tripartite institutions of academia, clinical, and tech. These industries speak different languages, and might have fundamentally different motivators, but we need to collaborate despite these barriers.
The AHA has the unique opportunity of not only being a convener, but also an architect. It has the reach, influence, and expertise to have a strong opinion about where the industry as a whole needs to go, and who should be working with whom. The forum concluded with many new partnerships and ideas. Even as I’m typing this, the AHA is planning on introducing a healthcare technology track to Scientific Sessions, an upcoming convention with 15,000 cardiologists in attendance. As a techie and an aspiring medical student myself, it is tremendously exciting to see these two communities working together toward building a culture of health.