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As Government Punts on Reform, Tech Revolutionizes Healthcare

Recent headlines scream tech’s invasion of medical sector: “Alphabet’s bets on health tech are paying off as portfolio companies go public” (CNBC), “Can Amazon do to healthcare what it did to books?” (CNN), “Apple, in sign of healthcare ambitions, adds medical records feature for iPhone” (New York Times). Reading the fine print in the smaller font tells why tech figures to triumph.

A new article in the Harvard Business Review explores how virtual health can save patients money and doctors time.

“Virtual health refers to the use of enabling technology — such as video, mobile apps, text-based messaging, sensors, and social platforms — to deliver health services in a way that is independent of time or location,” Kaveh Safavi and Frances Dare write. “We believe uses of virtual health hold potential to boost the capacity of primary care doctors — without adding or training more professionals — at a time when the Association of American Medical Colleges projects a shortage of as many as 40,000 primary care physicians (PCPs) in the next decade.”

Accenture, the company that employs Safavi and Dare, estimates that the various gizmos and gadgets can save $10 billion. Given that Americans spend $3.5 trillion annually on healthcare, with spending projected to hit $5.7 trillion by 2026, $10 billion might seem like chump change. But it’s part of what may rein in or, dare one say, reduce spending in the one sector that hungrily devours such a massive percentage of the economy.

In 1950, Americans spent less than five percent on healthcare. By 1970, that figure rose to seven percent. It now consumes about 18 percent of GDP. In less than a decade, healthcare’s portion of the GDP eclipses 20 percent.

Every bit helps. And when prescriptions, premiums, and so much else race upward, the fact that apps and other digital devices figure to reduce costs stands as a rare victory.

Video games constitute a quarter of all apps. Medical apps compose less than two percent. Still, apps that save instead of waste lives grow in popularity. According to an Accenture survey, Healthcare apps and wearables utilized by one in nine four years ago now attract one in three adult consumers.

What apps do Americans find appealing?

DoctorOnDemand.com brings back the house call, albeit in a futuristic way. Through a smart phone, computer, or tablet, the app puts patients face to face with one of 1,400 participating physicians in all 50 states. CareZone, listed by iTunes as its top free medical app, sends “reminders when it’s time to take a med, or refill a prescription and track adherence progress by recording when doses are taken.” Kardia users “touch the sensors” on its device “for 30 seconds to capture a medical-grade EKG anytime, anywhere—no probes or wires necessary.”

The apps not only save money for consumers but free time for overworked physicians, nurses, and even front-desk staff.

“Such virtual medical assistants often guide the patient through standard intake questions, such as symptoms and family medical history, and analyze the combined information with a diagnostic engine so the physician can consider clinical options prior to the in-person exam,” Safavi and Dare explain. “Common consumer devices, such as wearable sensors and biometric devices, would let health care providers automatically gather patient information, along with concerns or discussion items, for the visit. An Accenture analysis shows that streamlining annual patient visits in this way could save PCPs [personal care physicians] an average of five minutes per encounter and free up 47.8 million hours across the PCP workforce.”

The authors work for Accenture, so dismissing their forecast as overly optimistic boosterism comes easy. But that does not necessarily validate such cynicism. Hospitals, doctor’s offices, and patients already rely on tech to a much greater degree than they did just a few years ago. The prediction of a coming revolution is not wrong but late. It’s already here.

Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of five books.

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