Last week, following the news that Google Health is disbanding, a Healthcare IT News article asked the question, “Is healthcare too hard for Big Tech firms?”
The answer is yes. And, no. Health care is hard. It’s a fragmented industry with multiple payers, multiple providers, multiple competing incentives and disincentives, and a patient population largely disengaged from their own health.
But, framing Google Health’s failure, as well as that of Apple and before them, Haven and Microsoft’s Health Vault, as an indictment of health care technology’s inability to solve very real problems plaguing the health care industry is preposterous.
We work with two health care tech companies that are not only succeeding but thriving. One, Access Physicians, a division of SOC Telemed, delivers tele-specialty services to hospitals and clinics, and the other, XFERALL, equips hospital and mental health agency clinicians to efficiently locate clinically appropriate available inpatient medical and behavioral health care for their patients.
These health care tech companies are successful for several reasons:
- They identified a specific problem to disrupt: In the case of Access Physicians, the mismatch between specialist availability and specialist demand, and in XFERALL’s case, the unacceptably long time that patients wait in hospital emergency departments for behavioral health treatment or a higher level of medical care. Each company perfected their product to solve a specific problem identified by hospitals and clinicians themselves as a barrier to better patient care.
- They brought knowledge of the health care industry to technology, not vice versa. Google and Apple are technology companies. They are not health care companies. Both Access Physicians and XFERALL were founded and are led by exceptional individuals who not only worked in hospitals but actually delivered patient care. This isn’t to say that the only way for health care technology companies to succeed is to be led by physicians or former hospital c-suite leaders, but understanding the industry and all of its nuances and complexities is essential if the technology is going to solve a particular problem.
- They are in it for the long haul. Getting hospitals and other health care organizations to move on health care technology is a time-consuming process. In hospitals, there are multiple positions that make up the buying group who decides whether to purchase particular technology. This buying group includes the CEO, CFO, chief medical officer, chief technology officer, chief nursing officer, and maybe chief legal officer and other clinical leaders. Any one of these individuals single-handedly could hamstring the decision-making process, but it takes the entire buying group to agree to move the process forward. Add into this large buying group staff turnover, and you have a very lengthy convincing and sales process.
- They don’t deal with direct-to-consumer technology. Getting patients (or consumers, however you want to define them) involved and engaged in their own health is challenging. While the market for self-help books, vitamins, fitness equipment, and tech gadgets, like the Apple watch or Polar trackers, is in the billions of dollars, the incentives are simply not there for patients to meaningfully engage in their consumption of actual health care services. A quick look at the use of hospital price transparency tools tells us everything we need to know there. Despite federal mandates to disclose hospital prices and the widespread availability of online price estimator tools and calculators, patients are not making care decisions based on this information. Why? Because they don’t have to (insured consumers are largely insulated from the actual costs of care) and because the choices about where they can obtain care have been made long before by their insurance plan and their employer.
The Google and Apple health care casualties don’t mean that all health care tech is terminally ill. Tech can survive and thrive in health care, under the right conditions and with the right approach.