Author Julia Hu is the CEO of Lark Health, a company in our sister fund Joyance Partners’ portfolio.
We’re living in a time of unprecedented investment and innovation in health care. Every day it seems like a new company that offers better health outcomes at lower costs enters the market or receives new funding. And, frankly, it’s about time.
Nearly every industry has experienced a wave of digitization and consumerization before health care. This is true even for similarly highly regulated industries. Take finance, for example. Big financial institutions have been using machine learning to detect fraud for years, and consumers have been able to do most of their banking online for decades.
Even after years of record-setting investment in digital health companies, we’re only on the cusp of this kind of transformational shift in health care. It’s time to speed up the digital health revolution.
The challenges our health care system is facing are too numerous and too massive to wait any longer. First among them is the chronic conditions crisis in the US — the single largest cost-driver in our health care system. Nearly half of all Americans are managing one or more chronic conditions, and with our population aging and gaining weight, the scale of the problem will only grow.
We are beginning to see how we can harness technology to address this looming crisis with the rise of digital therapeutics, tools that help people manage chronic conditions. The problem is that most of these solutions are only ushering in incremental change, when we need bold new approaches.
We used to have to visit our doctor in person to get chronic condition care. Then, that care expanded to mean we would see a nurse, in order to get care slightly more often. Then, we could connect with nurses on the phone between those visits to answer any questions during business hours. The problem is that too many of the existing digital therapeutics just build on that model, replacing an in person visit with a virtual visit with a nurse who can view results from connected glucose monitors or blood pressure cuffs.
Those are great initial improvements that allow people to more actively manage their own conditions with a lot of complex data, and allow providers to more efficiently monitor their high-risk patients. But that’s just adding infrastructure — it’s not solving the fundamental problem.
We need to face the underlying scary challenge that we simply do not have enough doctors, nurses, and health coaches to provide care to the tens of millions of patients who could benefit from ongoing personal support and care to stay healthy.
We just don’t have a health care system built for chronic disease support, and once we recognize the severity of the problem, then we can start to radically reimagine how to solve it. But first, it will require three things to happen.
For starters, we need to stop being scared of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Health care innovation needs to happen with caution, and careful regulation — lives are on the line. But AI and machine learning have matured, and there is no reason why they cannot be applied to chronic conditions management to achieve the mass scale and unit cost economics we need to solve this epidemic. Right now, the bulk of the investment in digital therapeutics is misaligned. Some of the companies in this category are raising so much capital because they need to hire a lot of care managers, coaches, doctors, and nurses but the fundamental unit economics have not changed much, it’s just being reallocated to new players.
Second, we need to avoid fragmentation. It is rare that a chronic condition presents as a standalone problem, and many patients are experiencing more than one. Thus, it’s tempting for digital health companies that treat one condition to join forces with other point solutions to expand their offering. But for patients, these conditions are interconnected, and treatment should be holistic and fully integrated. Having a single technology platform built from the ground up is the best way to do that, so that data and improvements are shared across all conditions
And finally, we need to ensure patients have access to the advice they need to manage their conditions 24/7 and wherever they are. Think of your banking app — you can deposit a check and chat with a banker any time of day or night, right from your smartphone, no matter where you are. Patients should not have to wait for appointments in a few days or weeks or months to get help managing their chronic condition.
If we, as those leading the charge in the digital health revolution, can do all three effectively, we can totally change how health care is delivered for tens of millions of Americans. Instead of leaving patients on their own except for a specialist visit once a year or a brief chat every few weeks with a nurse, patients with chronic conditions will be able to receive constant, one-on-one support, whenever they need it, wherever they are. That’s the kind of care needed to stay healthy when managing a chronic condition, and that’s the kind of care patients deserve.