Trendy Digital Health Firms Seek Solutions to Questions It Never Thought to Ask

The week before a big event is always busy, and before I leave for a week to attend Chief Learning Officer’s Spring Symposium, I want to geek out on some recent news about digital health companies.

The headlines are “Is digital health care becoming a bubble that will soon burst?” and “Digital health startups scramble to respond to suicidal users.”

CLO, which is Workforce’s sister publication at Human Capital Media, is focused on learning and development. In the spirit of learning new things and asking questions, I want to encourage employers to look beyond the hype of this Big, Exciting Trend and have a healthy skepticism related to health-related programs. I’m not saying organizations should never try new things. I’m arguing that it’s healthy to explore the macro environment of digital health and think strategically about if and where it fits in your health strategy.

Digital health solutions are a trend I hear about a lot. Mostly I hear about the benefits they promise. But as an inquisitive person, I prefer to take a realistic approach to analyzing any big new thing, especially if it’s one of those buzzwords that seems to develop an almost mythic quality in a short amount of time. And especially if its something related to something as sensitive as employee health and employee health data.

This first article from news site Stat explores how digital health companies — which are “on paper, health care’s most promising upstarts” — have had a record year in 2018, taking in millions from investors. Still, there are signs of stress in the digital health community. One expert she suspects that this could be the peak investment cycles.

In addition, the article rightly points out something that’s true of a lot of buzzwords: “digital health company” is hard to define and hard to make sweeping generalizations about. It includes a lot of types of companies like “telehealth services, software-based diagnostic services, wearable gadgets and sensors and analytics tools.” Also, apparently some of the digital health hype we’ve seen recently is artificial because many firms in the medical device sector have been rebranded as digital health companies “to capitalize on the fervor surrounding it.”

This is obviously a very macro view of the digital health sector, and it mostly focused on investors’ slowing interest in light of how much capital it takes for a digital health company to “overcome significant barriers to win uptake in the health care industry.”

The story about suicidal thoughts, also published in Stat, provides some interesting questions as well. Suicidal patients are an unforeseen crisis for some digital health companies, the article argues. For example, one company designed to help people manage their diabetes found that in practice, patients also used the app to express suicidal thoughts. The CEO said, “To be honest, when we started this, I didn’t think it was as big an issue as it obviously is.” Also, there’s an example here of a telemedicine company that found out about instances of domestic and child abuse and had to figure out how to approach that different crisis situation.

According to the article, “as digital health companies and traditional clinicians alike try to assess and mitigate a patient’s suicide risk, not everyone is convinced that chatbots and messaging apps are ready to play a useful role.”

There’s a lot of workplace angles that apply here, from training digital health company staff about responding to app users’ serious problems to the pros and cons of communicating with a chatbot about serious health problems. These are rich topics I’d be interested in exploring at a later date. For now, my takeaway for employers is a big-picture question. What are the responsibilities and limits of health apps and/or digital health companies? What privacy rights do users have versus the privacy rights they think they have?

My message for employers is to pay attention to both the potential benefits and the uncertainties of digital health solutions. They won’t be the silver bullet solution, and it’s good to have realistic expectations on any health initiative or app. If, for example, you offered this app for diabetes management and found out that some anonymous users reported serious issues, it could be a good opportunity to look elsewhere in your health strategy to see if there are any gaps preventing people from receiving proper care for this surprise problem.

I just think it’s fascinating to keep up with the latest in digital health. As employers consider digital health solutions, the promises and hype they hear aren’t the only factors to consider. There’s also outside factors like confusing ethical questions and uncertain investment activity. It’s a big, growing sector in health care, but it won’t be growing forever and concerns will ebb and flow from patients, doctors, privacy advocates, investors, researchers and basically anyone else in the general health care space.

What do you think? What are the potential benefits and challenges of digital health solutions on patients? And what kind of questions should employers ask before choosing a digital health provider?

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