White House shines spotlight on health care tech companies

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and it goes hand-in-hand with one of the most tedious deadlines of all — at least until April 15 (aka tax day) rolls around. December 15 marks the deadline to sign up for health coverage in order to be covered in 2016. And, seemingly recognizing that making sense of the complex health coverage landscape is about the least festive thing there is, the White House spoke up today with a dispatch about health care technology.

White House digital strategy director Joshua Miller took to the blog to discuss the record low of uninsured Americans, as well as highlighting few of the companies that are leveraging technology to help the uninsured get coverage. Some of those companies include ZocDoc, an online appointment-booking service that will be reminding its users to enroll for coverage and Oscar, a health insurance startup that made a PSA aimed at demystifying coverage.

“We know that many uninsured Americans question whether they can afford coverage, and may not realize that more than 7 in 10 HealthCare.gov customers can find insurance for $75 a month or less after tax credits,” said Miller in the White House blog post. “So for uninsured Americans who remain skeptical about the costs of getting insured, health insurance company Oscar Health has created a digital video public service announcement (PSA) that explains why health insurance is actually more affordable than people may think. Oscar will distribute this video in key markets online, too, including in California, New York, and Texas.”

On the receiving end of a hefty $32.5 million investment from Google back in September, Oscar is a health coverage startup that helps people choose coverage options with straightforward, plain-language plan comparisons. Leaning heavily on technology and simple design, Oscar helps customers keep track of care and connects them to providers in an attempt to improve upon the outdated systems that create separation between customers and coverage. 

“At Oscar, we are constantly pushing ourselves to find new and creative ways to engage consumers through the use of technology and provide members, as well as the uninsured in our communities, with the knowledge they need to get care, says Oscar CEO Mario Schlosser. “We are incredibly motivated by the support the White House has shown us today on this initiative and are proud to share this video we created on just how simple it is to sign up for an affordable plan through the ACA.”

The deadline, it creeps. But understanding the way coverage works in the age of the ACA is a big part of solving the uninsured problem, and the administration’s recognition of the vital role of technology in tackling some of our country’s biggest issues remains a pivotal thread in the tapestry of what Miller calls “today’s collective challenges.”

Exploring what an Apple medical gadget might entail

Apple isn’t interested in transforming the Apple Watch into the ultimate health monitoring device, but the company is open to creating an entirely different product that would.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, chief exec Tim Cook hinted at future involvement from Apple in health, but cited federal regulation processes as a reason it wouldn’t do so via its smartwatch. He did, however, talk about the possibility of an adjacent product (a gadget or app) that could have a serious impact on the health care industry — because, of course, Apple’s involvement tends to result in a pretty serious impact on every industry it touches.

While he gave few specifics, there are a few key factors surround FDA approval and technology in the health care sector that might help suss out what Apple has in mind. I caught up with Venkat Rajan, a health care analyst with market research firm Frost & Sullivan to clarify a few things about health care tech, FDA testing and Apple’s place in the medical arena.

“To be clear in terms of definition,” says Rajan, “the FDA doesn’t dictate how a doctor can use a device as much as it dictates how you market what the device says it does.”

He gives the example of hearing aids versus sound amplifiers — two devices that do essentially the same thing and function in much the same way, but are marketed differently. Hearing aids are positioned as a treatment for hearing impairment and, as such, typically come from audiologists.

Sound amplifiers, by way of contrast, aren’t marketed as treatment devices. Because of this distinction, this class of device isn’t subjected to the scrutiny and regulation of the FDA and, as a result the product reaches the market and the consumers much more quickly.

So where does that leave Apple? Cook made it clear that they’re not going to chase down FDA approval for Apple Watch, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the company will leave a potentially lucrative market untapped — nothing would be more unlike Apple.

“The real opportunities for Apple are something adjacent to the Watch and that probably means some type of peripheral, wearable-type technology,” Rajan says. “There are a lot of different potential wearables out there that are being explore and so it remains to be seen if Apple has a specific type of patient or disease profile in mind.”

There are already FDA-approved apps and peripherals that are available for use with Apple Watch, though the watch itself is not FDA-approved. Apple Watch’s current role in the health and medical arena is as a conduit for health-related data and communications for those who work in health care. Its role isn’t particularly different from that of a smartphone or tablet though it is, perhaps, much more portable.

While its health data collection and activity tracking work well for personal use, the lack of FDA-approval means that the data from Apple Watch isn’t particularly useful for doctors looking to treat patients and track their progress, which is a key element of wearable technology in the medical space. The future of powerful medical technology for consumers will likely revolve around the degree to which doctors and patients can trust the data gathered by their devices.

“A lot of these devices do a good job of tracking information,” Rajan says. “But I think it is taking a lot of the types of information — whether it’s heart rate or activity or blood sugar sensing — and taking it a level deeper, [such as] being able to collect medical-grade data that an insurance company, hospital, or physician could take a look at and make decisions around.”