From cloud platforms for medical data and hospital smart rooms to artificial intelligence and patient-engagement technologies, the giants of the digital world are threatening to disrupt healthcare.
Leading the pack is IBM and its centerpiece offering Watson Health. In just the last six months, the company has announced major initiatives into healthcare including a partnership with clinical consultation provider Best Doctors to add Watson’s cancer suite to employee benefits packages, a population health management alliance with Siemens Healthineers and an effort linking IBM’s PowerAI deep learning software toolkit with NVIDIA’s NVLink interconnect technology. The PowerAI is already being used improve diagnoses and care plans by sifting through patient data.
In October, Big Blue announced a $200 million investment in its Watson Internet of Things global headquarters in Munich, Germany. The money will support a series of IoT “collaboratories” aimed at bringing researchers, engineers, developers and entrepreneurs together to work on novel healthcare and other solutions.
Growing field of players
Apple has also more hinted at plans for a major thrust into healthcare, with high-profile hires and partnerships with large healthcare systems like Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and Scripts Translational Science Institute. The company also acquired personal health record startup Gliimpse, which hopes to advance interoperability by aggregating health data into a single digital patient record.
Meanwhile, Apple has a patent application for a wearable device that can measure electrocardiographic information across different body areas of provide doctors with actionable readings. A series of emails between Apple and the Food and Drug Administration also shed light on several regulated products Silicon Valley firm is developing.
Microsoft is also expanding its footprint in healthcare with its analytics capabilities. Since jumping into the wearables market in 2014, the company has teamed with Twist BioScience on the capabilities of DNA digital data storage, collaborated with the medical community on numerous health research projects and joined forces with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to create innovative care delivery products. And just this week, Cigna announced it has leveraged Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to for interactive game-based health screenings.
And last month, Samsung waded into the digital health space via a partnership with American Well that leverages the Korean tech firm’s consumer electronics with American Well’s Exchange platform to enable providers and payers to connect and share telehealth services online. The company is also launching an IoT senior care solution called Breezie.
Driving these and other large, multinational electronics companies is demand for data-driven information and the shift to value-based models of medicine and payment.
“Healthcare has been labeled as ‘ripe for disruption’ for years, but the combination of government mandates and regulations, technological advancements and financial incentives of the last decade has seemed to finally get the needle moving,” Derek Spearing, senior manager at Top Tier Consulting tells Healthcare Dive. Add that to the wave of health IT startups in recent years, and “healthcare is cool again,” he adds.
One of the things larger organizations bring to healthcare is a perspective on how other economic sectors have handled information challenges. At the same time, there’s growing appreciation among IT firms for the enormous complexities of healthcare and the fact that peoples’ health and lives are at stake.
“There is tremendous potential to leverage what’s been done in other sectors within healthcare to drive greater clarity in terms of care delivery and to really modernize, streamline and help along the journey toward value-based care where organizations are able to deliver high-quality care at a low cost and in a reproducible fashion,” David Delaney, chief medical officer at SAP in Cambridge, MA, tells Healthcare Dive. Last May, the firm launched SAP Connected Health Platform, which leverages its SAP Hana in-memory computing platform with healthcare-specific components.
“The runway’s a little longer, it takes longer to achieve lift and scale in healthcare, but the commitment and journey are very much worth it.”
Chief Medical Officer, SAP
However, tech companies need to do their homework and engineer solutions that truly support healthcare, Delaney adds.
Improving hospital metrics
Penetration into the healthcare is already high and will grow exponentially over the next five to 10 years, according to Robert Krohn, partner and healthcare practice lead at ISG. Starting with electronic health records and moving to IoT, the quality of predictive analytics and real-time analytics, as well as digital offering that enhance the patient interface, which younger patients are migrating toward, are growing daily, he says.
What this all means for hospitals is improved patient outcomes and patient satisfaction, both of which increase Medicare payments, as well as lower costs and higher margins due to operating efficiencies, Spearing says. But while IT firms are shaking up healthcare with AI and automation and helping doctors better tailor patient treatments, he hesitates to call them disruptive just yet.
“As long as the same decades-old issues continue to plague healthcare — lack of interoperability, questionable security, over-regulation, over-employment (driven by the tedious manually intensive approaches to administration, claims processing, testing, auditing) misdiagnoses, etc. — I’ll be pessimistic of any claims of disruption,” Spearing says.
Ripe for consolidation
With myriad startups and small HIT companies dotting the healthcare landscape and larger companies entering the space, consolidation is only a matter of time, experts say. The health information exchange market, for instance, started with a number of small firms that were bought up by large payers, notes Delaney. And there’s talk about consolidation in the EHR sector.
“The large multinationals … always monitor the smaller firms and will make financial plays at the appropriate time to take these startup ideas and commercialize them and broaden them into grander offerings,” Krohn tells Healthcare Dive. “We don’t think that’s a bad idea."
Delaney agrees. Whether it’s regulatory, administrative or patient engagement, early-stage companies are able to rapidly identify a trend or opportunity and execute on it in a nimble fashion. Larger firms have the customer base to really drive and catalyze those changes. “This is a natural kind of movement you’ll have across all sectors in a time of disruption,” he says.
Putting patients first
As hospitals and health systems expand their palette of digital partners, should they be thinking and acting more like them? T2C’s Spearing thinks so. “Responsiveness, efficiency and user experience … are just a few traits of today’s successful technology companies and their products, and I don’t think any of these immediately come to mind when a patient recounts their experiences with hospitals, health plans and the ‘patient portals’ offered by either.” Spearing says.
“I believe that patient experiences and outcomes, as well as the hospitals’ bottom line, would improve if hospitals were to ‘act’ more like tech companies.”
Senior Manager, Top Tier Consulting
Pointing to Yelp, Spearing says complaints of long wait times, lack of price transparency, billing issues and patient privacy could also be addressed and eased — to some extent at least — with digital solutions.
Organizations should identify their core competencies and where they can invest their people to achieve the greatest return on investment toward their mission, which is caring for people, according to Delaney. Large technology companies do infrastructure well, so it’s a waste of good talent to focus an organization’s IT staff on reproducing that.
Delaney recommends that organizations leverage the platforms tech companies have to offer and then innovate on top of that to create “that last mile of capabilities” that improves patient interaction and operations.
“Partnering with the large multinationals, assuming you’ve got appropriate scale to do so, is the appropriate approach,” Krohn says. “That being said, you can’t be blind and immune to the emergence of technologies. You need to understand what it is that your partner does at a level where your appreciating it and figuring out how it can help your overall business model and your patient experience, while not necessarily trying to recreate it.”