Line between Consumer Wellness and Traditional Medicine Blurs Further
With wellness and health now entrenched in the public lexicon, the line between consumer wellness and traditional medicine has blurred.
Experts say that the consumerization of medicine is largely beneficial, but putting health care tools in the hands of consumers requires care—and, likely, greater oversight to promote healthful outcomes.
A medical device is intended for use to monitor, mitigate and treat diseases and conditions. A wellness device, by contrast, can monitor health-related information and promotes a general state of health, but does not treat or diagnose a condition.
Wellness Devices vs. Traditional Medical Devices
Despite the distinction, these formerly distinct categories have moved closer together. Because wellness devices are increasingly powerful health monitoring tools, they have encroached on the boundaries of traditional medicine.
An Apple Watch, for instance, can track heart rate. New models even support electrocardiography. It can also work in conjunction with a blood glucose monitor. Many other medical devices are designed for consumer use and home care, enabling nonpractitioners to view the data, while practitioners to interpret it.
The connected health and wellness devices market is expected to reach $612 billion by 2024, according to a 2016 report by Grand View Research Inc. And the wearable medical device market alone is projected to reach $14.41 billion by 2022, according to Markets&Markets Inc.
“The lines are definitely blurring,” said Jessica Groopman, industry analyst and founding partner at Kaleido Insights. “The Apple Watch has clearly blurred that line on the consumer side. And with the push toward in-home patient care, increasingly, it will be patients themselves who will be using these formerly traditional medical devices,” Groopman said.
Some industry practitioners believe that this consumerization of health care will broaden access to and improve quality of care. “You’re going to see an advancement of medicine in general,” said Dr. Samir Qamar, a primary care physician and inventor of MedWand, a telemedicine device enabling patients to take health diagnostics with the device in hand while conferring with a doctor via videoconference.
“Whenever you have globalization of any industry, things advance,” Qamar said. “And telemedicine is a big step in the right direction.”
There are caveats to the benefits of consumerization, though, cautioned Qamar. While it arms patients with data, it doesn’t provide the expertise to self-diagnose based on that data.
“There is a problem if people cannot interpret what they are seeing—the EKG diagnostics, for example,” Qamar said. “It can be challenging to put that data to meaningful use. But if you pair the consumerization of medical devices with medical interpretation, that’s where you have success.”
Telemedicine: Bridging the Gap
Enter telemedicine, which puts health care tools in the hands of consumers, Telehealth gives them digital access to medical practitioners to provide diagnostic analysis and next steps.
One driver is increasing health care spending. Employers expect a health care cost increase of 4.9% in 2020, compared with 4% in 2019. And as consumer expectations for health care change, many have turned to alternatives to traditional care. Telemedicine is one option, enabling patients to play a greater role in their health care.
The telemedicine trend has begun to disrupt traditional medicine, and it may continue to blur the line between consumer wellness and traditional medicine—even if the discipline also seeks to clarify it. Qamar said it will take time for the consumerization of health care to shake out.
“Any industry that can go digital will,” Qamar said. “Globalization and modernization of any industry brings advances, and you need regulation to rein in associated problems,” he said. But he remained confident that with oversight, the benefits of telehealth would become broad-based and disruptive for health care.
While telemedicine is an emerging discipline, consumers have taken to it: 29% of respondents to a survey have used some form of virtual care — up from 21% in 2017, according to the Accenture 2019 Digital Health Consumer Survey.
“There will come a time when you won’t differentiate between telemedicine and medicine,” Qamar said. Very soon, we won’t be expected to go to our doctors. You will be able to be seen, examined, tested and then have treatment delivered — all within an hour.”
Kaleido Insights’ Groopman said that telemedicine can improve care for patients who are immobile, too sick to travel or far from metropolitan centers. “Videoconferencing extends access without the cost of having to move or travel. That value proposition is very powerful,” she said.
She noted that telehealth platforms also provide a benefit, in that the software often enlist AI, which can improve medical diagnosis through computer vision or other techniques. AI algorithms may be trained on millions of images of rashes or cancer. Recent studies have indicated the superior capability of AI to diagnose specific conditions such as cancer.
Telehealth platforms also enable greater collaboration between practitioners, even if they are at a distance from one another. Qamar noted that just a day prior, he had been sent the health history of a young woman with a potential thyroid cancer diagnosis. He received her files from her father in Texas. From his practice in Nevada, he sent her history to a specialist in Utah, who determined that she was not a candidate for an experimental treatment and would instead have to schedule surgery. That all happened within 15 minutes,” Qamar affirmed.
The Dangers of Health Care Data
At the same time, though, both Groopman and Qamar noted that algorithmic bias is a risk. Algorithms may be skewed either because the data is biased given certain assumptions or because the data sample isn’t broad or diverse enough.
“If we are to realize the full potential of AI, we must create trust in algorithms and the outcomes they produce,” emphasized Martin Skolaski, principal advisor at KPMG in a report on the impact of artificial intelligence “Living in an AI World.”
“Whoever is behind the interpretation of medical data—from an algorithmic standpoint—it has to be airtight,” Qamar said.
Further, as observers have noted, not all data is created equal. Some medical devices generate data that is either difficult for consumers to interpret or not “actionable” enough.
And if telemedicine is the future, connected devices increase the attack surface and provide vulnerabilities to hackers. Additionally, data stored in digital platforms or transmitted without sufficient encryption methods can be vulnerable to breaches.
Indeed, industry practitioners indicate that data security is one of their greatest challenges in moving to digital medicine. In the report “The Impact of IOMT on Patient Outcomes,” respondents indicated, when asked about their greatest challenges faced in bringing smart, connected products to market, “device and data security” and “interoperability with healthcare networks and systems of record” were the top responses (50%). “Privacy of patient data” (33%) was also a key.
According to Groopman and Qamar, the blurring line between consumer wellness and traditional medicine will compel change in the health care industry.
“Technology is going to force regulation’s hand—whether it’s security standards for software, whether it’s medical devices and consumerization, whether it’s the writing of artificial intelligence — all that will have to be governed as well,” Qamar said. “I think you will start to see a whole upsweep of regulatory issues trying catch up.”
Telehealth Returns Focus to Customer Experience
Despite the need for regulation of telemedicine and other consumer trends, perhaps the greatest net gain from the blurring line is a renewed focus on customer experience. For both Groopman and Qamar, the consumerization of health care is putting greater focus on patient experience.
“It’s a shift from this model we have today, which is disease oriented to one that is patient oriented,” Groopman said.
“All change you will see in health care will come from the patient side,” Qamar said. “All the players need to come at it as though they were patients themselves. Any practitioner changes the game if they approach it from the patient’s perspective.”