Digitizing the doctor’s office: 7 ways technology will shape healthcare in 2013

At the Consumer Electronics Show this week, all kinds of health devices and apps are taking center stage. But beyond potentially improving the health of individuals, what does the boom in digital health mean for the health care industry over all?
This week, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) released its annual report on the top health industry issues. The document touches on everything from state debates over establishing Affordable Care Act-mandated health insurance exchanges to employers’ new role in providing health care to the growing influence of the consumer. Chris Wasden, PwC’s Global Healthcare Innovation Leader, chatted with me about how technology specifically fits into the bigger picture and the ways in which it will impact the industry in the next few months and years.
2013 is a critical year in healthcare for several reasons, he said – this year, health insurance exchanges are supposed to be ready to come online, doctors are incentivized to meet new electronic health record guidelines and more hospitals will feel the pinch from new penalty fines for high readmission rates. But even aside from the changing policy landscape, a big driver of technology in health care is simply its ubiquity in the lives of consumers.
“Consumers [think that] with my mobile device, I can control the light fixtures in my home remotely, I can buy and sell goods, I can get directions. I’m able to do all these things and yet, when I walk into [the doctor’s] office, I can’t use my mobile device to do anything,” said Wasden.
Technology is poised to shape the health care industry in several ways – here are seven of those trends to watch in 2013.

Consumers get more tools for being cost-savvy

If you needed to buy a plane ticket across the country, you’d likely have a sense of how much it would cost and, if not, you’d at least know where to go to find out. But what if you needed to pay for an MRI? Or a colonoscopy? Or a mammogram? Comparison shopping is the modus operandi for most big-ticket items we purchase, but not so for healthcare – until now.
We’re clearly not going to become a nation of cost-savvy health care consumers overnight. But as states implement the recently-passed Affordable Care Act (ACA) and establish health care exchanges, they’ll be under more pressure to provide tools that assist people in choosing their own coverage. The push for more transparency is also coming from employers’ shifts to higher-deductible health plans and, says PwC, the rise of retail health clinics that provide health services in nontraditional environments, like pharmacies, big box stores and other non-medical locations. Sites like Castlight Health, ClearCostHealth and GoHealth are leading the way in comparison shopping, while startups like Simplee and CakeHealth help consumers manage and understand their health care finances.

Employer as health coach

When it comes to health care, employers have played the role of banker for decades, but, going forward, many may start playing the part of coach. Given new incentives in the ACA and in light of rising health care costs, employers will increasingly rethink their roles, says PwC. And, as they do, many could embrace prevention-focused, data-driven employee wellness programs that quantifiably monitor employees’ behavior and provide tangible rewards. With new fitness trackers like FitBits, WiFi-enabled scales and biometric devices that measure blood glucose levels, blood pressure and other vital signs, programs from companies like Healthrageous remotely track patient progress and outcomes; companies like Keas use social media and gamification to keep employees engaged; and PUSH, for example, actually pays employees for achieving their goals.

Consumer ratings make a difference

Consumer reviews are run-of-the mill for everything from restaurants and reviews to gadgets and books sold on Amazon(s amzn). And they’re slowly making their way into health. Through consumer services, like ZocDoc, HealthTap and Healthgrades, patients are reading and contributing comments about their doctors. And, PwC’s report highlights that government payment to hospitals is increasingly being connected to consumer experience and satisfaction. Historically, health care providers have been resistant to reviews, believing that patient ratings would skew negative. But a study last year, found that patient reviews were largely positive. A more recent study indicated that too few patients had submitted reviews for rankings on sites like Healthgrades, Vitals and RateMD to be reliable. Still, though there are limitations to the ratings, patients support them and their value is expected to grow.

Nonphysicians put on the doctor’s coat

You’ve likely heard the phrase “doctor shortage” bandied about considerably in recent months. But according to a new study in Health Affairs, most estimates don’t consider how new technology, paired with nonphysicians, can make it possible to treat more patients with fewer physicians.  The health care industry may be more resistant to this kind of change than any other, says Wasden. But electronic communication, big data and other kinds of information technology will result in nurses, pharmacists and other nonphysicians stepping up to offset at least some of the increase in demand for doctor services.

Health comes home

Considering that we spend far more of our time at our houses and apartments than we do at the doctor’s office, health has always started with the home, Wasden notes. But the rise of telehealth services, from startups like Ringadoc to a national telehealth program from insurer WellPoint, as well as the growth of connected and wearable devices that enable doctors to monitor patients remotely, will make health even more bound to the home. Additionally, PwC reports that concierge medicine and “population health” approaches to care, which reward physicians based on outcomes, not treatment, are on the rise. And to keep patients healthy and out of their offices, physicians will increasingly rely on digital communication.

Consumerization of health IT

Mobile technology, as we and others have reported, is sweeping health care.  But that isn’t because IT departments across the industry have pushed it into the doctor’s office, it’s because doctors and consumers have. Doctors rarely warm quickly to IT initiatives, Wasden said, but because of their attachment to their mobile devices, they’re starting to bring them to work. The downside of the “bring your own device” trend is that hospitals must contend with security issues. But the upside is that it’s bringing consumer technology into health at a faster pace, which bodes well for patient engagement and more communication between patients and health care providers.

Big pharma goes ‘beyond the pill’

For years, drug companies have been looking for ways to provide value “beyond the pill,” says Wasden, and as they do, more are turning to apps, devices and sensor-based technology. Those options help keep them relevant to consumers on an ongoing basis and they help them address increasing pressure to show outcomes.  For example, earlier this year, Pfizer (s PFE) launched a Lipitor app just as generic versions of its drug hit the market. Drug firm Novartis (s NVS) is an investor in Proteus Digital Health, which this summer received FDA approval for its chip-embedded pill.
Image by Brian A Jackson via Shutterstock.