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Healthcare Needs Innovation Now

New developments in connectivity and monitoring are shifting an industry traditionally defined by incremental change.

The world of healthcare has traditionally been characterized by incremental innovations and a deep-rooted aversion to risk. But the healthcare realm is undergoing a quiet revolution, spurred by new developments in Big Data collection, by the growing presence of wearable sensors and related bodymonitoring equipment, and by increased connectivity between the people formerly known as patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals, often thanks to the widespread adoption of mobile technologies.

In addition, design is increasingly playing a key role in making complex systems such as healthcare easier to understand and access. As designers continue to create medical devices for homes and hospitals, medical packaging, websites for people affected by chronic diseases or health-conscious consumers, apps that measure fitness, and other health-related products and services, they are also strategically helping to make the larger scale experience of healthcare more engaging and effective. Living in the connected world of today, designers are able to apply a broad understanding across the disciplines of user experience, technology, and business strategy to help write the next chapter of healthcare’s history in the most compelling way possible.

Beyond designers, other unexpected players are starting to join the healthcare ecosystem. The telco world, for example, is warming up to the idea of connected care, and wise executives are considering the role that they can have in that space. Mobile phones – and especially tablets – have already shown huge potential in becoming powerful and ubiquitous bridges between healthcare professionals, caregivers, and patients. TeleCare and TeleHealth service platforms are also emerging from a long period of trials and pilots, and will be hugely valuable assets in the aging societies of developing countries. The data flow from all these connected devices and services is surely going to be of value to many companies, but the real opportunity lies in putting to good use the huge health data-sets they will generate, and in becoming trusted partners that will manage people’s aggregated information. Telcos – amongst others – have the option to position themselves as trusted health data banks and brokers, and the possibilities are just starting to come into focus.

At frog, we have been researching these possibilities and working with a variety of companies on the future of healthcare, covering the whole spectrum of health, from fitness to wellness, to recovery, to acute and chronic care. We have observed numerous technological successes and failures and cultural and economic waves that are likely to affect the business, and the personal experience, of healthcare. Based on our work and research, here are a few areas to watch.

Everything That Can Be Connected Will Be, Including Health and Care

Today’s most disruptive changes are being driven by connecting people, things, and industries to other people, things, and industries; the same is happening to the domain formerly known as healthcare. There are new ways of looking at this space, ways of looking that take us away from the older directions of “e-health” or “m-health,” and toward more of an emphasis on “care.” This is why we prefer to refer to this area of opportunity as “Connected Care,” inherently putting people at its center, and not healthcare delivery systems. As we see more lifestyle contexts for health, we are also starting to become more aware of how different areas of our lives are connected, increasing the perception that health is not a facet of our life that requires attention once things go bad, but an ongoing process we have to feel engaged with all along our path in the world.

Healthcare was once a domain of hardcore healthcare-focused players. Today, there are numerous non-traditional health service providers – Nike, FitBit, Microsoft, Qualcomm – moving quickly into this space. And with health-related services like Asthmapolis or The Eatery sitting on an iPhone or Android screen beside Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook applications, the boundaries between lifestyle and life-care are blurring, perhaps even fading away.

A Necessary Shift From Curing to Prevention

If we consider that the focus of healthcare will be more on care than outmoded concepts of institutional or formalized treatment, then businesses and patients alike will focus more on preventing diseases than on curing them. Currently, we are caught up in the unsustainable high costs of managing acute and chronic care. Annual healthcare spending in the United States alone is expected to reach $4.6 trillion in 2020, which represents about one-fifth of the entire U.S. economy, according to a report from Medicare’s Office of the Actuary. That is up from $2.7 trillion in 2011. The model is broken and has to be improved.

Today the huge machine of healthcare gets in motion only after one of its professional members has diagnosed a temporary or chronic condition. In most cases and countries the quality of a healthcare system is only measured when treating a disease, and only then the economic incentives of reimbursement come into play to propel the system forward. The key to make healthcare sustainable in the future will be to understand what incentives will be needed to tip the entire system towards prevention.

What happens when DNA testing or biome-based medical approaches become mainstream? How do we cope with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension spreading among children at rates unlike any other in history? Can telecare services like Sonamba really help us deal with rapidly aging societies and unprecedented numbers of the elderly? These are new trends that are likely to affect how we approach the costs of maintaining healthy lives and communities. Monitoring, via connected care systems, can help with prevention. People who use these services can keep track of their cholesterol or sugar consumption, their weight gain or loss, whether they are taking their medication and how and when it causes side effects— and share this data with other people like them and caregiving communities. Imagine, too, the aggregated data and the patterns it can illustrate and how these patterns can help in epidemic research and analysis. Ultimately, such monitoring will contribute to the quest to keep healthcare costs down.

A Journey From Prescription to Choice

The key to successful prevention will mean a focus on a more engaging and attractive vision for care, and one of the current “fashionable” expressions in the industry points to the “the consumerization of healthcare” as a prediction for the future of healthcare in this sense, but I find this point view overly simplistic. I much prefer the expression “moving from prescription to choice,” which suggests that better healthcare means understanding the needs, desires, and drivers of a new class of information-empowered patients, rather than simply relabeling them as “consumers,” which is just one of the many facets of the human condition.

Today people are participating in healthcare-focused social networks, and they are actively contributing to patient communities like Patients Like Me, or they are learning about conditions and symptoms via WebMD, often using many of the same information resources that physicians have access to. The true way that businesses will harness a consumerstyle approach to healthcare, which admittedly can be a powerful idea, will be through addressing patients who are empowered by new sources of knowledge made available to anyone. Enlightened healthcare service providers will provide options to account for people’s preferences about managing their own health, and know that healthcare professionals have to come to see themselves as true life partners in the choice of a preferred path to prevention and care.

Healthcare and The Experience Economy

If “choice” is one the keywords for the future of healthcare delivery then the quality of the experience provided by healthcare services will soon rise as a key differentiator for market success. The healthcare industry has started to warm up to this idea, inspired by the world of consumer products, and has riffed on the design expression ”user-centric” to talk about “patient-centric” solutions. While this shift is a very positive first step in the right direction, the hope is that we’ll quickly move away also from this jargon, as people are simply not their diseases in the same way they are not just consumers.

In the next chapter of the industry formerly known as healthcare, people will start to see the care of their health as a lifelong narrative. Science is now telling us how our life stories might begin as early as in the womb, when we are affected by what our mothers eat when they are pregnant, and effective storytelling is likely to become a key ingredient in any effective healthcare solution. These stories will be about people’s lives, not about the diseases that happen to affect them. Although there will be more data available about people’s health experiences, they will learn and demand to be understood and spoken with as a human beings and individuals, and not be considered a statistic.

The ultimate goal will be to think of health from a human-centric point of view, and apply the idea that care can be engaging and even fun at times, just as using a computer or a phone – tools that were thought of as mostly utilitarian rather than a source of delight a generation ago – can now be considered an integral part of the flow of our daily personal and social activities.

These considerations have given rise to another highly hyped set of terms and underlying theories, such as “behavior change” – using socially shared data-driven feedback loops to tip people into adopting healthier behaviors – and “gamification”, digitally turning any human activity into a game of sorts, using game dynamics and social incentives as motivators.

While in many cases these theories and their resulting solutions have yet to prove their long-term effectiveness and already risk sounding like yesterday’s tired buzzwords, it is undeniable that adding a sense of participation – and where possible and sensible also an element of fun – can increase patients’ engagement. This can help them enlarge, and stay connected to, their social and medical circles of care.

From Big (Health) Data to Big Knowledge

The direct result of the digitization of medical data, coupled with the bottom-up generation of even more data coming from connected health devices and services squarely sits in the business opportunity area usually labeled as “Big Data.”

In the healthcare space, the availability of large data sets promises to enable researchers, doctors, and specialists to make decisions based on better evidence with the support of predictive models of the evolution of a disease. The rise of Computational Medicine, such as the eponymous group at John Hopkins, promises to one day provide healthcare professionals with algorithms that can support them in better decision-making, while improving the confidence of patients as well. The ultimate promise of these data-intensive scenarios is to lead to truly Personalized Medicine, where personal health data-sets – whether it be DNA or blood glucose levels – will be interrelated with similar data aggregated at a large scale, and analyzed to identify or develop molecules and treatments precisely tailored to the needs of an individual.

This whole opportunity area is at the moment complicated by the high sensitivity of health data and records, by the fragmented regulatory scenarios governing its use and the ethics of patient privacy. Another hurdle is simply the lack of encoding standards to ease aggregation and processing.

Big Data schemas promise to provide substantial financial upsides to companies interested in seeing their involvement in this area as a strategic long-term investment. But when putting people at the center of a healthcare system, Big Data is ultimately irrelevant; what’s important is Big Knowledge. This brings up the question of how to package up one’s personal or aggregated data into meaningful information and insights, so that they can generate knowledge people can use to improve their understanding of what they do. Alternatively such insights could help someone actually change their current habits to improve their odds if diagnosed with a genetic predisposition to develop a chronic disease.

This is also where a lot of “behavior change” scenarios can fall short of truly delivering long-term value if they assume that exposing people to data and adding a socially augmented feedback loop is enough. Assuming that people will change their habits simply by showing them data – even well-designed data – is akin to assuming they’ll become poets by showing them a grammar book. It is only generating insights from data, and linking those insights to people’s daily lives and habits that will give them what they’ll need to start exploring a path to improving their health conditions.

e-Diagnosing: The (Connected) Doctor Is In

The same changes affecting the people/patient end of the healthcare spectrum are just as rapidly impacting its professional end, and an innovative generation of medical professionals is busy amplifying the weak signals pointing to what medicine will look like in the near and far future.

The “doctor’s visit” is unlikely going away, and it is a ritual that still holds the potential to deliver the most value for patients if based on a trusted relationship. But it also promises to be augmented and influenced by the availability of supporting technologies in the future. The shift from computers to tablets is already creating opportunities to move from conversations that have a “display” separating professionals from patients—where information presented at a visit to the doctor’s office or hospital is visible only to professionals – to conversations facilitated and sustained by information shown on displays that can be interacted with by both parties.

It is also very likely that some, and in some cases most of our interactions with physicians will be mediated by digital technologies, with services like Sherpaa pointing the way: access to trusted healthcare professionals will be a video-call away, and available 24/7.

The same data that people will be generating and reviewing to self-manage their health and mitigate possible chronic disease scenarios will be of huge value to healthcare professionals, and will become the basis for fact-based consultations and a more efficient use of a professional’s time.

Physicians and specialists will also be able leverage the current explosion of apps and accessories for mobile phones and tablets that turn them into professional-grade diagnostic tools, which open the way for new, nimble ways that healthcare professionals will be able to diagnose and treat their patients both in person and remotely. Connected “consumer” weight-scales and blood-pressure monitors and glucose meters like those offered by Withings and VitaDock, as well as FDA-approved smart phone accessories like AliveCor’s ECG monitor are all examples of a growing class of products that has the potential to replace stand-alone dedicated medical devices.

With the rise of digitally channeled medical services, there clearly will be new types of workflows for physicians, specialists, nurses and professional caregivers to embrace, and this shift might not be an easy one to accept at first.

Shared access to equal sources of information and the availability of more personalized care models offers opportunities to move away from an outdated and slightly paternalistic model of care, and create the foundations for new levels of trust to emerge as a result, with more time dedicated to meaningful conversations with patients and less to guesswork and trying to understand what the problem really is from incomplete recollections of events and lack of effective evidence models.

Connected Care, Learning and Finance: A Virtuous Circle For Developing Economies

While many of the examples above appear related to the socio-economic context of developed economies, the wind of change for the healthcare sector is blowing strong in developing countries as well.

The impact on care that connected (and especially mobile) technologies are having in developing economies around the world is proportionally more impactful and more effective. This is true even when solutions appear from the outside to play on the lower end of the technology innovation spectrum.

SMS-based services or simple applications running on feature phones have enabled healthcare services to reach parts of the population for whom a doctor’s visit still equates to a day-long trip, not to mention a day lost in terms of putting food on the table.

Whether it’s helping mothers take better care of their children via initiatives like Mama or improving the prevention of the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children – as frog has been doing with Unicef and other partners – these services only represent the tip of a promising iceberg, and show the way for more advanced applications as the price of more capable mobile devices follows well-known economies of scale.

Mobile technologies have also helped give rise to a new class of healthcare professionals – Community Health Workers – that put to good use mobile phones and simple eDiagnosing tools to provide basic care services where traditional healthcare services often struggle to offer constant presence.

The rise of connected care in developing economies is often sided by the emergence of effective solutions in the areas of Mobile Learning and Mobile Money, and together these innovations promise to create a virtuous loop resulting in better quality of life and hopefully economic and societal growth over time.

Innovating in Fragmented and Highly Regulated Ecosystems

In conclusion, we must of course remember that there are no opportunities without challenges, and this is especially true in complex interconnected value ecosystems such as healthcare.

Many of the scenarios depicted above will require serious changes not just to the cultural and mental models of people and professionals, but also in terms of what has to be enabled from a legal perspective. The fragmentation of the healthcare regulatory landscape associated with the different local, regional, and global business strategies of key players in this space make for a particularly difficult environment to invest and innovate in, not forgetting that this is a field that has not lost its averseness to taking risks or exposing an organization to unexpected new liabilities.

What is evident though is that the healthcare landscape is shifting and morphing faster than it did in the last few decades, and there’s not much that companies interested in becoming or remaining leaders in this field can do other than breathing deeply and embracing the inherent complexity of this fascinating sector badly in need of innovation. Creating the future often means having to push against the status quo, and healthcare is in no way different.

There is so much that has to be done, and what better motivation could there be than that of improving people’s lives when they are confronting the most fragile facets of the human condition?

Fabio Sergio

Fabio is the global lead of frog's Social Impact practice, bringing human-centered innovation to collaborations with organizations such as UNICEF and the World Economic Forum.

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