Last year was huge for healthcare. Not only are more people insured than ever before in the US because of the Affordable Care Act, but innovations in healthcare and medicine are also increasing at an exponential rate. The industry grew more in 2014 than it ever has before, and that trend will continue into 2015 as there are more innovations in wearables, digital health clinics, telemedicine, and disease research and prevention.
The healthcare industry will see a 21% increase in IT jobs by 2020, according to University of Chicago research. Rock Health, a digital health seed fund, recently released a report that showed there was $4.1 billion in funding for digital health startups in 2014. Major tech companies like Apple and Google announced health initiatives last year. And according to ABI Research, activity trackers outnumbered smartwatches 4 to 1 in 2014.
With that fast growth in mind, here are seven digital health trends to keep an eye on in 2015.
At CES 2015, fitness trackers were, of course, hugely popular once again, but wearable technology is getting more advanced — and much more useful. There were many examples of technology doing good that signal the wearable industry will start to solidify more this year and extend its reach. Some of them included smart hearing aids that help people with hearing difficulties have an easier time in noisy, crowded rooms, and a smart diabetes tracker that logs and analyzes insulin levels.
"There's a huge untapped opportunity that is opening up as biosensing technology advances. We imagine a world where more data points about oneself can lead to lower healthcare costs and overall better health," said Halle Tecco, founder and managing director of Rock Health. "Especially for people living with chronic diseases and life threatening illnesses — we're moving to a system where critical measurements can be taken continuously to reduce hospital stays and save lives."
2. Predictive analytics
Big data is the buzzword in digital health. Researchers have been gathering data for disease prevention for a while, but being able to analyze that data is going to be revolutionary. Combine that with wearables to track and monitor patients, and we can understand much more about chronic illnesses and ways to prevent them.
One example of this is Intel using big data to fight Parkinson's disease. A smartwatch and smartphone monitor movements — more than 300 observations each second — over a six-month period, and the two systems gather data regarding tremors, sleep quality, and slowness of movement. Researchers are using the data to do research on the disease and help prevent it.
Telemedicine, which is the use of telecommunications technologies to support long distance health care, has become more common throughout the last year. Several months ago, Google confirmed it was working on Helpouts, which is their service to connect users and experts, with a feature to connect with medical professionals that is HIPAA compliant.
The technology has potential in rural areas as well as developing countries, and Google's move is interesting because more people self-diagnose their illnesses now than ever before. Telemedicine is also a great use for extended therapy; patients can do sessions from their home, using video games and telecommunications with therapists, and hopefully save more money than they would if they went into clinics.
4. The move to Electronic Medical Records
Electronic medical records were mandated by a 2009 federal law, but many hospitals have still not gotten on board. Albeit slowly, the US is working towards getting all these paper documents online. Electronic medical and health records are not only easier to organize and understand, but they also allow different doctor's offices and clinics to collaborate on a patient's care and better understand their medical history, especially those patients with chronic diseases or family history of diseases.
5. Digital health clinics
The reason for digital health clinics is to increase access to care — while hopefully reducing costs. Again, this is a way to allow people in rural areas who don't have access to doctors or those who can't leave their home to get the treatment or advice they need.
So many people need multiple doctors — for instance, women need yearly visits with a gynecologist, dermatologist, general practitioner, etc. Another example: digital clinics could really open a new opportunity for women during pregnancy who need prenatal care, an OB-GYN, lactation specialists, or dulas. Instead of heading to the doctor every time they're worried, they could ask for help on a digital health clinic.
Since so many people are Googling their symptoms anyway, digital health clinics are, in many ways, an obvious next step to making sure things can be treated before they get worse.
"Digital health clinics can reduce the barrier to getting an early diagnosis and help prevent the onset of something worse," Tecco said. "If you end up in the hospital, most likely something went wrong along the way."
6. More outside talent to fix big problems
Coming up with ways to fix the healthcare system in the US is more important than ever, and technology and big data can play big roles in that. According to the World Bank, the US spends $8,600 per capita on healthcare, which is 30% higher than the closest industrialized country. And hospital care, physicians, and clinical services make up more than half of healthcare spending, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
It's like with any other industry — if there are more diverse groups of people giving more diverse ideas, then there are more diverse solutions. And hopefully, if technologists, healthcare providers, scientists, programmers, and others work together, they can find those solutions faster. Tecco said that's a big trend to watch this year.
"We're seeing more founders coming to healthcare from outside the healthcare system. Great founders are realizing there's a huge opportunity to make a tangible difference in a broken system," Tecco said.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.