The coming of digital health translational research

Digital health is hot. Applying information and communications technologies to improve outcomes, access and population health, and decrease costs is the new "new thing."

Whether it be electronic medical records, data analytics, business intelligence, decision support, patient or physician apps, business process improvement, telemedicine, remote sensors or analyzing big data, entrepreneurs and investors are flocking to digital health solutions to solve the healthcare mess. There are now over 18,000 iPhone medical apps, creating a new generation of iPhoniatricians. Technologies are converging at an amazing pace and soon it will be impossible to tell the difference between a drug, a device and an application.

However, do these things really work and make a difference? Is there enough data to demonstrate validity, effectiveness and improvement over the standard of care? At this point, the case is weak and will need to be a lot more robust if we expect payers to pony up. So, how do we get the data when there is no formal evaluation process beyond what the vendors are trying to tell us?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Physician entrepreneurs , market perceivers and "technopreneurs" need a place to test their applications in a safe environment where they can objectively measure results. Not unlike controlled trials for drugs and devices, we need to create ecosystems where hospitals, providers and technology developers have a place to experiment. Right now, CIOs protect their systems from intruders and make it difficult to beta test an app or try a new disease management innovation. Finding a place to test things in the field is a challenge.
  2. We should raise the bar when it comes to results and validating claims of improvements over the standard. Let's get past the gee-whiz and measure whether the innovation does what it is supposed to do in the field.
  3. We should build federally funded academic-community based digital health translational research centers where partners in health can collaborate and where the future generation of digitons can be trained.

Digital health has the potential to radically restructure healthcare practice. However, you only get what you measure.


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