In the last decade, we have been witnessing what seems to be incredible innovation in the healthcare tech sector. Behind the scenes, the industry is so massive with so many key players and together they control the resources and the message that gets out to the public. We all heart the catchwords like artificial intelligence in health, telehealth, mobile health, machine learning and so on. They insist these innovations are amazing, good for the people, they save lives. But while the health tech industry tells us what we want to hear, our eyes see the truth.
It’s quite easy to get lost in the lingo and terminology of the health tech industry. So, to cut through the noise and determine whether all of this health tech innovation is effective and making the world a better place, you should ask a few simple questions.
TECH IN HEALTHCARE, WHO BENEFITS?
Who should be benefiting from all of this innovation? The obvious answer is the consumer, or patient. Whether it’s in hospitals, treatment centers or the physician’s office, we are the ones that this industry should cater to. But at the moment, it has proven to be greatly benefiting big tech, pharma companies, doctors and insurance companies.
Secondly, you should ask: what is it that individuals want to achieve with the advancement of healthcare tech? Or even, what does a healthy society look like? What metrics are we looking to achieve? It would be to live healthier lives. Higher mortality rates, less doctors’ visits, less dependence on medications, less stress and living a life without nagging pains, infections, diseases and conditions.
The problem? A healthy society doesn’t generate any money for the groups involved. The health tech industry is built to treat people when it’s too late. They look to reduce wait times in emergency rooms, and conduct expensive chemotherapy treatments. It’s not built to bring up new generations to be healthier. It’s the equivalent of an oil leak in your car. They’d rather lay down a towel that can absorb more fluid as opposed to fixing the actual leak.
Another (and very important) point is that the industry does not cater to small business. Forget cater, the environment is completely inhospitable to health tech startups. The small companies care about the end consumer. This is what differentiates them from the big dogs.
But before we dive in to why the industry is headed in the wrong direction, let’s talk about the health tech innovation categories and what we think of when talking about this industry.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IN MEDICINE
The concept of AI and machine learning in healthcare relies on two things: massive amounts of health data and using that data to achieve a desired outcome. Typically, the desired outcome is improved patient care. Whether we talk about medical record data or medical device data. Industry leaders are constantly trying to find ways to improve health outcomes by analyzing and creating new algorithms with this data.
“Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies have the potential to transform health care by deriving new and important insights from the vast amount of data generated during the delivery of health care every day. Medical device manufacturers are using these technologies to innovate their products to better assist health care providers and improve patient care.”
This is perhaps the biggest sector of the health tech market. Companies with “AI” and “machine learning” attached to their name are seeing massive investments. They do everything from creating software for hospitals to easily track patient data, to analyzing health related biomarkers in order to predict and prevent negative health outcomes. Whether this is actually helping on a large scale is yet to be determined.
REMOTE PATIENT MONITORING
Remote patient monitoring deals with family doctors and physicians being able to care for their patients without having to book an appointment. This is best suited for the elderly, those with chronic, long-term health conditions or both. Hundreds of such tools already exist in the form of medical devices and other wearable technology, however still under-utilized. The biometric screening tools allow individuals to record key health markers like EKG, SPO2 and blood sugar levels at home and the doctor will be able to see it as soon as it happens on his or her computer.
There’s some conflict of interest at play. While being able to monitor your health at home is great, it will (hopefully) lead to less doctors’ visits. This is great for the individual, but not the doctor. The health tech industry is filled with these types of ironies.
Telehealth and telemedicine are the practice of providing medical and health services remotely without having to visit an office or clinic. This has been in the works for quite some time and the pandemic helped propel the service even further. It seems that telemedicine is one of the most prominent tools and used by a majority of doctors these days. Why? Because it’s great for them. They get to book more appointments, and save time.
WEARABLE ACTIVITY TRACKERS
Perhaps the most poorly utilized solution on the list is wearable technology. Not under-utilized, but poorly. Millions have experience with smart watches, Fitbits, smart sleeves and other smart clothing items. But these were consumers purchasing the goods for their own health, promoted by private companies with little connection to the global health conglomerate. Which is great!
The level of wearable technology that is out there now vs what it was 10 years ago is remarkable. You can track EKG, blood oxygen, activity, blood sugar levels, stress levels, and so much more. So many companies are competing in this space and providing amazing, life-changing tools at an affordable price. Affordability is the most important when we talk about accessibility to health tools for life improvement.
MOBILE HEALTH AND WELLNESS APPS
Smartphone apps have been instrumental in providing billions of people access to (sometimes) free resources. Everything from meditation apps, to calorie counting apps. Mobile health technology is popular among those who are health conscious. The challenge is to try and get as many other people on board as possible. Lifestyle changes will have greater positive impact on the overall health of a nation than any AI, machine learning tool.
THE HEALTH INDUSTRY KEY PLAYERS
While the healthcare tech and digital health market is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, as is standard, a small group of entities control the direction it goes in.
The entire initiative and direction are controlled by the government, hospitals, big pharma, big tech, physicians and insurance companies. Each has its own self-interest that is diametrically opposed to that of the consumer. This disconnect is at the body of our argument today. That the healthcare tech market is going in the wrong direction. Let us detail why this is happening.
RED TAPE IS KILLING STARTUPS
It goes without saying that big corporations have an advantage in any industry, but it’s even more evident in the health tech industry. Not only are the costs for any kind of certification astronomical, but big tech, hospitals and the government work together to coordinate advancement of new products and software.
The issue is two-sided. Getting FDA clearance is extremely expensive for small companies trying to leave their mark on the industry. However, the FDA needs certification for almost anything, even when it’s unwarranted. If you have the word “health” or “diagnostic” in your product, you will most likely need some kind of certification. Some cynics would come to the conclusion that big tech and big med companies influence and support these tough restrictions and entry costs to keep the competition out and retain their market share.
CORUPTION – MEDICAL INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
This goes to the final point of the previous section. We’ve all heard of the military industrial complex. This refers to the inherent relationship between a country’s military and the private defense industry. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower warned us of this potential corruption in his final address, prior to leaving office and being replaced by John F. Kennedy.
The military industrial complex is most prevalent in the United States. The congress and senate have an interest to protect the country. This means purchasing the best weaponry and technology. The defense industry spends upwards of $100 million yearly in lobbying the US congress and senate. During the Afghan war, these lobbying efforts led to the US government handing over $2.2 trillion dollars to the top 5 weapons companies throughout the 20-year span of the war. Funding to these 5 companies grew 188% in the same time period.
It’s easy to see that we’re beginning to see the same from the medical industrial complex, but in a different way. The FDA makes its money from drug and device certifications. Insurance makes its money of premiums and doctors make their money from sick people. The opioid epidemic in the United States is an example of the medical industrial complex at work. Over prescribing pills, physicians receive financial incentives for doing so. The old adage “wars make money” well so do sick people. There is very little incentive to find cure or long-term lifestyle change.
INDIVIDUALS WILL BEAR THE COSTS
In an industry that’s growing so quickly, seeing billions of dollars invested in every year, there is one inevitability. We will bear the costs. Always. Doesn’t matter what industry it is, the cost always comes down on the consumer. We’re seeing this with rising treatment costs, drug costs, doctors’ visits, everything!
When innovation doesn’t end with inclusion of the majority, it’s a waste. While those with funds enjoy the fruits of the new labor, 90% are stuck with the same system from 20 years ago.
POOR ADOPTION OF WEARABLE TECH
Wearable technology these days is amazing. As we touched on earlier, there are so many tools that allow you to take control of your health and make long-term improvements. Not to mention at a very reasonable cost.
Something like heart rate variability (HRV), which we discuss a whole lot on this site. HRV is slowly becoming the gold standard in home health monitoring. It’s a unique biomarker that gives you an in depth look into your internal health at any point in time. It was originally marketed as a tool to optimize performance, but is starting to be utilized by millions who have pre-existing conditions.
HRV gives us insight into the inner working of our autonomic nervous systems. It is the best pre-screening tool out there and you can purchase an HRV monitor for less than $150. For this reason, doctors don’t like recommending these products. They don’t get a cut, and they will have less appointments booked. There are, however, many ‘new school’ doctors that are all for technology adoption. This number needs to increase for us to see generational improvements in overall health of our society.
NOT FOCUSING ON LIFESTYLE CHANGES
This plays to the prior section. While wearable technology and wellness apps are doing their part to force positive lifestyle changes, the healthcare tech market will do no such thing. Seeing a doctor and acting like poor health is inevitable has been programmed by Western society. It’s the status quo. Get sick, see a doctor, get pills, all good! One could say it’s the population stubbornness to adopt change, however many people trust and rely on government information. Information from the FDA and the CDC. It’s natural.
We need to be focused on lifestyle changes in order to make a healthier society. Healthy food is much more expensive than McDonald’s, that needs to change. Governments should be incentivizing wellness and long-term wellness. The future should have empty hospitals and waiting rooms. This takes effort that frankly is nowhere near where it needs to be at this point.
The moral of this story can be compared to that of the bank situation in most countries. “Too big to fail.” Banks were granted so much power by all governments. They control the vast majority of the world’s wealth. And at this point, it’s nearly impossible to take that power back.
On the positive side, the healthcare tech industry can still be saved, though it will be difficult. In order to do so, people need to wake up, and take the power and put it back into their hands. We all need to reverse the trend. Maybe high healthcare costs will make people stop and think. Make short-term change and sacrifice to avoid long-term pain and suffering. Focusing on wellness and lifestyle will surely do that. And if so, then the health giants will have to shift their thinking as well. They will need to adjust to the need of the people as opposed to the other way around.