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Digital Health Trends to Look for in 2019

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

From virtual reality to 3D-printing, tech companies will continue to transform health care in 2019. 

We can expect to see more tech giants demonstrate an interest and investment in the health care sector. Whether it’s through mergers and acquisitions or developing tools that dramatically change how consumers manage their health, tech companies are helping to revolutionize the way health care is being delivered.

As we approach the new year, here are the top ways technology will impact health care in 2019:

Tech Extends Its Health Care Reach 

In 2018, we saw more companies move into the health care sector, with Amazon acquiring the online pharmacy, Pillpack, and electronics retailer, Best Buy purchasing the health and safety solutions company, GreatCall. These mergers may very well change the way prescriptions and eldercare services are delivered.

In September, Apple unveiled the Apple Watch Series 4 with the new capability approved by the FDA to screen heart rhythms and send a notification if it detects an abnormal heartbeat that may appear to be atrial fibrillation (AFib). Since AFib, which affects between 2.7 and 6.1 million Americans, can lead to blood clots, strokes and other complications, this new wearable has the capability to help save lives. It is also the first ever consumer device to receive FDA clearance for ECG monitoring.

In addition to monitoring our health, the extent of data we can collect from wearables is going to increase substantially, allowing patients to be monitored in real-time, with the potential make health care more accessible and affordable in the long run. 

The Future of Pre-Existing Conditions

Health care was front and center in the 2018 midterm elections, topping the economy as the biggest issue among voters. 

With Democrats winning the House, the issue of repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) seems to be dead for at least another two years. Yet, earlier this year, a coalition of 20 states filed a lawsuit alleging that Obamacare is unconstitutional. The lawsuit includes nine of the 11 states with the highest rates of pre-existing conditions. Residents in these states will suffer the most if the lawsuit goes through. 

Whether the safety net created by the ACA for pre-existing conditions goes away in these states as a result of this lawsuit, or future legislation, there exists a need for new approaches to care for patients with pre-existing conditions. The care team model will need to evolve to accommodate the reality that although people are living longer, they are often in poorer health.

In addition, advances in genetic testing signal a need for protection of pre-existing conditions. While the at-home genetic testing market is booming, allowing consumers insight on the future of their health, it also poses a quandary. If a test shows that a young healthy person is at risk of developing a genetic disease later in life, will they be classified as having a pre-existing condition? Time will only tell. 

Creating Alternatives to Opioids

Technology could also play a significant role in ending the nation’s opioid epidemic, which has been the cause of more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017 alone. 

Research conducted at Cedars-Sinai has found virtual reality (VR) may help manage pain and distress. In fact, Cedar-Sinai says VR can reduce chronic pain in by as much as 25 percent, and the effects can last for hours. Currently, over 300 hospitals throughout the world are using virtual reality devices to help patients, including those with opioid addiction.

Advances in virtual reality have made personal VR devices, such as the Oculus Go, an attractive option for consumers. By offering an affordable all-in-one virtual reality headset that’s easy to use, has excellent graphics, and includes apps such as Nature Treks, consumers can fully immerse themselves in locations around the world while simultaneously easing chronic pain.

In the near future, it’s possible that rather than prescribing opioids, doctors may prescribe VR for chronic pain patients in the same way they now refer patients to physical therapy. 

The evolution of pharmacogenomics also shows promise in helping to end the opioid epidemic. By combining pharmacology with genomics, researchers are developing ways to develop safe and effective medications and optimal doses to align to each person’s individual genetic makeup. More research will be conducted in 2019. 

Reducing Employer Health Care Costs

In an effort to control the rising costs of their health benefit programs, many large companies, including a growing number of tech giants, are offering employees onsite health clinics and wellness programs. We expect to see this trend continue in the new year.

These onsite health clinics are designed to save money and time by increasing employee attendance at work, improving patient care and emphasizing preventative health. A 2018 Mercer survey found that one-third of U.S. employers with 5,000 or more employees offer general medical worksite clinics, which is up from 24 percent in 2012. 

Last year, Apple launched “AC Wellness,” a subsidiary that provides on-site wellness services to employees and families. By opening two health clinics in Santa Clara and one at their Apple Park headquarters, the company plans to go beyond offering traditional health services in an effort to increase accessibility and affordability for employees. 

Over the course of 2019, we can expect to see more models like this that deliver medicine in a personalized way, tailoring health care to each patient’s individual age, gender and health condition.

It’s an exciting time in digital health, as we continue to see new innovations emerge designed to improve the patient experience and overall health.

Previously published in Becker's Hospital Review.


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