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What Technologists Need to Know To Get Started in Digital Health February 24, 2021

What Technologists Need to Know To Get Started in Digital Health

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Written by

Sam Moore and Corey Roth

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Digital health is having a moment. More than half of healthcare professionals surveyed in 2020 reported implementing digital health solutions as a top priority in their organizations. Every aspect of the patient journey is on its way to having a digital component—whether it’s tracking personal wellness, managing appointments, viewing test results, or communicating with providers.

Given the promise of digital health, players big and small are investing heavily in the space. “Entrepreneurs, investors, enterprise healthcare leaders, and even non-healthcare companies are sprinting towards digital health innovation at an unprecedented pace,” according to Rock Health, a venture fund that supports work in healthcare and technology. With a heightened focus on digital, talented technologists will be in high demand. This means more designers, researchers, engineers, product people, and other experts will be entering the field from other industries.

Technologists starting in digital health need to understand three core principles that may be different from their experience in other industries. Backed by over a decade of practical experience in digital health and other industries, we’ll explain why patients aren’t customers, how health is a complex ecosystem of actors, and why organizations must get the data right, even when it’s not their own. Remembering and employing these principles will help technologists deliver more impactful user experiences in the growing field of digital health.

Patients aren’t Customers

In the world of health, avoiding or addressing something negative is more of a driver than buying something novel. While health tech can be purchased like consumer products (think of Apple Watches, smart scales, and certain apps), the more common reason for using a new tool is a (often highly personal) health change. Many times, patients start using a new digital product or service because they have limited choices or have been instructed to use it by a physician.

A digital project for a major clinical laboratory network highlights this idea well. When Cantina was rethinking the company’s patient portal we discovered most providers pointed patients to the digital service only to review test results. Because this network processes tests for a multitude of providers, a significant portion of the user population didn’t know the network’s name or brand. The “decision” to sign up for an account and use the portal was driven by provider partnerships, not consumer choice.

This demonstrates that digital health is often the means to an end. The patient’s need to understand what’s wrong and figure out how to feel better overshadows any fancy feature in this emotional moment. When designing technology for these situations, technologists need to embrace this fact and remember people are the heroes in the journey, not technology.

Health is a Complex Ecosystem of Actors

One unique challenge technologists face in digital health is delivering great experiences while being dependent on parts of the ecosystem where they have little control. Compared with other industries, health is complex in both breadth of knowledge and depth of specialization. The U.S. health system is a complex network of actors often working together haphazardly. This diagram by IBM visualizes many of these complex relationships and underscores the fact that patients receive care across a continuum of settings. The aggregate patient journey across all touchpoints dictates patient outcomes and satisfaction. Technologists in digital health must embrace this ecosystem and find ways to build consistency across the full patient journey.

Tough health problems require a range of expertise, and each actor has a role to play. Digital teams must consider the combined perspectives of diverse stakeholder groups including legal and regulatory, clinical, operational, provider, payor, and even academia. Only with the combined knowledge of each of these specialized groups can technologists deliver solutions to meet the needs of patients effectively over the long term.

Get the Data Right, Even When it’s not Yours

Creating new digital tools is further complicated by the fact that critical health data is already dispersed across a wide range of electronic health records, vendor systems, and standalone consumer portals. Technologists should expect that anything they build will need to both pull data from existing tools as well as push key information into other systems. Becoming familiar with interoperability and data standards like FIHR are good efforts. Ultimately, getting the data right in connections between systems can make or break success in digital health.

While sharing data may be easy in consumer applications, the nature of health information means it needs to be secure everywhere it is used or stored. Protected health information (PHI) and personally identifiable information (PII) are heavily regulated for good reason. Failing to properly secure health data affected millions of Americans in 2020 alone. The work required to access, present, and securely store health information should not be underestimated.

This data challenge was evident on a CVS Health project focused on developing a new telehealth solution. While the patient-facing experience was a single touchpoint, the team had to integrate with systems housing PHI and communicate with a provider-facing tool. Like the majority of an iceberg, much of this data work was out of sight of the system’s end users. Most of the project team was dedicated to plumbing the data between various solutions effectively, while still ensuring the information was stored securely.

Delivering on the Promise of Digital Health

Digital health is full of opportunities, but successfully delivering on its promise requires long-term vision and a keen understanding of these core principles. When technologists recognize that patients aren’t customers and embrace the complexity of the health ecosystem their digital superpowers can support and enhance the work of health specialists. Treating health data with the respect it deserves will help deliver better, more secure patient experiences regardless of where the information is stored.

By understanding and employing these principles, the next wave of technologists to enter the field can help patients improve their health. To all of these folks getting started, we say welcome and good luck.


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