The Convergence is in Real-Time

02/15/2019

Technology is infiltrating healthcare. All the big tech companies are getting in on healthcare: Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Uber and Lyft, Microsoft, Intel. Will artificial Intelligence will replace physicians? Atul Gawande is named CEO of the new healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase, and the former CTO of Zocdoc and Amazon, Serkan Kutan, and Comcast veteran Jack Stoddard are also recruited.

These are a few of the headlines and news stories we have read about in just the past year, and the pace of the biotech-digital health convergence is moving fast forward. More and more biotech products are being developed to detect, monitor, treat, and manage our health, and on the enterprise level, more and more medical institutions and health systems are employing digital health platforms to optimize patient outcomes, lower costs, and combat physician burnout.

Innovative companies like Quanterix are developing blood tests of the future (liquid biopsy) that are uber sensitive and can detect diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's before a patient presents with symptoms, at stage zero, when it is optimal to treat for a better prognosis. Combining molecular biology and digital technology enables physicians to see if a medication therapy is working for the patient early on in their treatment regimen, or whether it should be changed.

Major industry conferences in biotech and digital health are developing new programming that includes session tracks and pavilions from each other's once distinct sectors, now converging in real-time. Last year in 2018, AbbVie sponsored the Digital Health session track at BIO. Pathologists are assisted by artificial intelligence in their ground-breaking research work. The FDA is pumping out new guidance documents and regulatory requirements to advance digital health and its stakeholders, including patients, health care practitioners, and researchers.

We see the convergence affect multiple industries, including the media. I worked at IDG, the world's largest tech media company that publishes computer journals like PC World, CIO, and Network World, and many of the editors from these publications have migrated to reporting for healthtech journals. Chrissy Farr of CNBC is an excellent example of a tech reporter who is now immersed in covering news of how the biggest tech companies are moving into healthcare.

As a communications practitioner, I went from servicing all "high tech" companies for two decades, to all healthcare startups for over a decade. I realigned my expertise to a sector with an increasing demand for communications and social media strategy.

A good analogy for the biotech-digital health convergence is the World Wide Web. Invented and launched in the early 1990's by Tim Berners Lee, I observed that CEOs and companies who embraced this new business and communications platform flourished (like Amazon), while other businesses and even job roles were completely decimated for an inability to adapt, to reinvent their business models, and keep pace with the new technology transformation.

Most importantly, on a societal level, patients and consumers are demanding this convergence which perhaps will serve as its greatest catalyst. The younger generations - millennials and Gen Z -- have grown up with devices in hand, and they both consume and manage news, entertainment, school, work, and medical/healthcare via a variety of digital apps and platforms.

Older adults are also included in this convergence equation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2035 there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older -- the elderly population will outnumber children for the first time in the country's history. Older adults are eager to adopt new technology to manage their own health and age-in-place. Technology is particularly helpful to older adults living at home with multiple chronic conditions, a demographic that is often cited as accounting for the 5% of the population that accounts for over 50% of healthcare spending in the U.S.

My excitement for the convergence spans the entire healthcare spectrum, however, I am most passionate about extending the accessibility and lowering the cost of mental health services that are desperately needed by so many who go without it. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. - 43.8 million -- experiences mental illness in a given year. As we innovate more telehealth services, I look forward to this population being better served, especially preventatively and in rural areas.

It is now time for the healthcare industry to embrace this convergence by officially naming it. We coined new terms like "digital health," "digital therapeutics," "medtech," and "healthIT." For this convergence of biotech and digital health, how about "digital biohealth" or "digibiotech?" Let's keep this discussion ongoing and stay abreast of the convergence.

Heidi Creighton is president of a Boston-based healthcare communications firm. She holds a B.A. in Expository Writing and Journalism from the University of Southern Maine and serves on the board of directors of several healthcare and education councils.