Understanding the goal of digital health

My 30-year-old son Matthew is autistic, and he loves going to the doctor. He loves it so much that he recently told me how much he was looking forward to his upcoming colonoscopy.

Matthew has advanced ulcerative colitis, which means many visits to the doctor, the lab, the infusion center and the hospital.

I’ll have to admit that the first time I heard the term “digital health” I was turned off. If digital health were to become a “thing”, would computer monitors, sensors, machines, and software platforms replace the warm smile and handshake of Matthew’s physician?

The answer, of course, is no. But digital health tools could monitor Matthew’s health, and keep him out of the hospital.

In 2006, for example, cardiologist Leslie Saxon was inspired by the new capability of implantable defibrillators that could stream information from her patients’ devices daily from their homes. She and her colleagues at USC’s Keck School of Medicine proved that connecting these devices to the web led to better outcomes for patients.

What is Digital Health?

Digital health technologies encompass a wide variety of tools, ranging from wearable sensors and portable diagnostic equipment to data-driven software platforms, telemedicine tools, and mobile health care apps. Together, they have the potential to help the U.S. health care system achieve five important goals:

  • Helping patients become more engaged in their own care
  • Closing communication gaps
  • Identifying patients’ needs and tailoring services to meet them
  • Enabling consumers to get care in convenient, cost-effective ways
  • Improving decision-making by consumers and providers.

Digital health tools empower individuals to track, diagnose, manage, and improve overall health and well-being, including how to choose and access health care services.

For several years, insiders in digital health have been promising that the digital revolution is coming, when wearables, telemedicine and other technological advances would allow for cost-saving efficiencies and improved, personalized care delivery.

According to a 2016 report by Rock Health, the tipping point has arrived, “Not only because of the record rate at which consumers adopted digital health technologies,” said Ashlee Adams, vice president of strategy and partnerships” but also because they are actively utilizing numerous tools.”

Rock Health, the first venture fund dedicated to digital health, surveyed more than 4,000 respondents across the U.S. and found that 46 percent of consumers are now considered active digital health adopters, having used three or more tools in categories such as telemedicine and wearables over the course of 12 months.


According to 2016 survey by the American Medical Association, the vast majority of physicians believe that adopting digital health tools will improve their ability to care for their patients. However, many challenges exist, including:

  • Physicians find it difficult to incorporate new technology with existing systems.
  • Physicians want to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to new technology, a few are.
  • It’s difficult to manage the data from wearable sensors that transmit real-time data using a patient’s smartphone or tablet and incorporating them into clinical practice.
  • Many patients who use their own apps and sensors – many of which are untested or unproven. In addition, much of the new digital health technology, especially mHealth apps, lacks an evidence base and primary care physicians (PCP’s) are cautious about using them.
  • Many apps focus on a single disease, whereas patients with the greatest need have multiple chronic conditions.
  • Apps for the management of chronic diseases are mainly focused on diabetes, obesity, hypertension, depression, bipolar disorder, and chronic heart disease, but high-quality apps for use in other chronic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and pain, are lacking.

How are these challenges being met? With partnerships between healthcare and technology leaders.

Centers for Digital Health Innovation include:

  1. Center for Health Innovation at UCSF (CDHI): CHHI  works with innovators at UCSF, supporting them with resources and funding to help take ideas to product and impact. CDHI also works with startups and companies at UCSF and beyond looking for consultation or looking to evaluate their product in a clinical environment. CDHI brings together innovators, thought leaders, and other partners from the digital health community to foster new connections and ideas.
  2. Stanford Center for Digital Health: Backed by Stanford University and the ingenuity of Silicon Valley, Stanford’s Center for Digital Health aims to advance digital health through collaboration and exploration. Stanford Center for Digital Health projects connect digital health efforts across the University by making available resources and infrastructure that allow the cycle of learning, implementation, and evaluation to occur seamlessly.
  3. USC Body Computing: Founded in 2006 by internationally-recognized physician visionary Dr. Leslie Saxon, the USC Center for Body Computing is a thought leader innovation hub designed to bring together digital and life sciences executives, sensor and mobile app investors, strategists, designers, investors and visionaries from healthcare, entertainment and technology to collaborate on transformative care solutions.
  4. Penn Medicine:The Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation facilitates the rapid, disciplined development, testing and implementation of new strategies to reimagine health care delivery for dramatically better value and patient outcomes. The  focus their work includes improving patient quality of life and outcomes by reducing health burdens, identifying areas in which connected health strategies can improve patient outcomes and lower cost and reducing the cost of health care while maintaining and improving outcomes.
  5. Texas Medical Center (TMC) Innovation Institute: The TMC Innovation Institute aims to shape the future of health care by uniting promising innovators with the best minds in academia, science and medicine. Their programs help startups streamline the development of therapeutic, diagnostic, medical device and digital health breakthroughs in the world’s largest medical center.

What about the patient? 

I am not like my son Matthew. I don’t look forward to my next colonoscopy and I don’t love going to the doctor. But I have to admit that when I’m sick, I’d rather see a doctor in person than visiting one virtually. But what if I lived in a remote area, may miles from medical care? Or what if I was very sick, or if I had a disability that made it difficult for me to get to the doctor?

“To deliver truly targeted, personalized care and foster meaningful health engagement,” says Raj Singh of Accolade, an on-demand healthcare company, “organizations need to harness the incredible power that lies in taking a blended approach to care management, with equal parts personal touch and technology. No matter how robust the data, cool the tools, or insightful the analytics, technology alone is not the answer.”

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