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Forget Robots, the Future of Digital Health is Human

By Phat Chiem | June 14, 2018 | Rally Health

Within just a few years, offering telemedicine programs to employees has become as common a benefit among large companies as 401(k) plans. But telemedicine — defined as health care remotely delivered over the phone or Internet with a consulting health professional — is evolving. And that’s amping up expectations for companies and benefits leaders to choose the right services for their employees.

Traditionally focused on facilitating virtual visits with a doctor or a nurse, existing telemedicine providers are moving toward more digital solutions, such as integrating digital diagnostic tests. Meanwhile, a slew of direct-to-consumer health startups have popped up, promising to solve patient problems with mostly automated approaches, generally eschewing consultations with live professionals.

The shift away from straightforward telemedicine is happening for several reasons. Health care, in general, is becoming more consumer-centric and data-focused. Digital health startups are pushing the frontier of this industry trend, powered by the ubiquity of smartphones and advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, wearable technology, and genomics.

These new programs often make use of chatbots, text messaging, wearables and other connected devices, virtual coaching, and social networking tools — or some combination of these elements. Unlike telemedicine services of the past, these digital platforms address a host of ailments, from depression to pre-diabetic conditions, without engaging a live human for the most part.

Rather than video chatting with a doctor, you might be happily conversing with a chatbot that can provide an initial assessment of your ailment and make recommendations for treatment. You might step on a digital scale that sends your weight to a cohort of participants who can cheer you on. Or you might whip out your smartphone to stave off a burning desire to light up a cigarette or eat that slice of chocolate cake.

It’s no wonder the space is exploding. According to analysis done by Rock Health, which bills itself as the “first venture fund dedicated to digital health,” 2017 was a record year for investments in digital health, with venture funding surpassing $5 billion for the first time ever (approaching $6 billion) and the most mega deals (above $100 million each) to date.

Investments in solutions that promise to deliver “tangible clinical impact” — the monitoring, treating, and diagnosing of diseases — have increased within each category over the past two years (ranging from 60 percent to 115 percent), Rock Health said in its report.

But here’s the catch with all-digital health technology: Research and member surveys reveal that while many employees appreciate the convenience of digital health care, they don’t necessarily want to lose the human touch entirely. Many consumers also want the option of interacting with a live person when the issue is urgent, when they feel stuck in the process, or simply because talking to a person feels better than chatting with a bot.

After all, it’s hard to teach empathy to a robot.

Digital services positioned to succeed are those that combine the best of both worlds: the power of always-on, automated technology with the intelligence, warmth, and encouragement that only a real person can provide.

One such startup employing this mix of services is San Francisco-based Lantern, a mobile mental health coaching app that helps users better manage their depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. The app includes exercises that teach users to build healthy habits, but amplifies this self-help training with one-on-one messaging with a live coach trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Lantern says research has found that its body-image program can reduce eating disorders by 50 percent and can actually prevent the onset of eating disorders in high-risk individuals.

Optum, a health IT and services company that is part of UnitedHealth Group, is investing heavily in digital services and artificial intelligence, while also channeling resources to improve the human touch aspect of its business.

Optum’s Wellness Coaching strategically integrates personal coaching, online learning, and digital tools to deliver a health program that’s personalized for each member. In the future, a chatbot may be incorporated, and if it doesn’t address members’ needs, users can choose to connect with a live coach.  

“Optum’s differentiator is the blend of digital, data, and the human touch,” said Scott Eising, senior director of prevention at Optum. “We know that technology can help our members achieve a host of lifestyle changes, from losing weight to exercising more to stopping smoking. It also enables our business, our providers, and our coaches to operate at scale so we can help more people every day. But technology itself can’t solve every problem. Where it can’t, we bring in real experts to fill in the gaps.”

At Rally HealthSM, we're also hard at work developing solutions that deliver well-being programs digitally, but without losing sight of the human element. For example, our partnership with Real Appeal® allows members to tap into a personalized, online weight-loss program that uses a mix of personal coaches, live face-to-face video conferencing, interactive messaging, and online content.

“The promise of digital health is fully realized when consumers get access to tools that empower  them to make better decisions and adopt healthier habits, while equipping coaches and doctors with a deep storehouse of data and systems that automate the most tedious tasks,” said Tim Bundy, director of product at Rally Health.

For your employees, this means a coaching experience that’s more productive and relevant. Imagine if you could take a virtual session with a Rally® coach who had your weight history and exercise regimen at her fingertips. Rather than spending most of the time on your history, she could devote more time to actual coaching.

Incorporating human interaction into digital solutions also enables solutions to tap into the power of community.

“Peer support is one of the most powerful forces in human psychology,” Bundy said. “When a person holds you accountable for reaching your goals versus a machine or text message, you’re much more likely to follow through. An all-digital solution would miss out on this proven way of enforcing lifestyle changes.”

As you evaluate digital health services for your population, look for platforms that:

  • Integrate both digital technology innovations and human expertise to gain the benefits of automation and real-world advice and encouragement
  • Leverage the power of community to create engaging experiences for members that foster accountability
  • Utilize data to further personalize member interactions individually and as a group (community)
  • Empower human coaches with technology and data resources to make them more efficient so they can focus on what they do best

The bottom line is that you want a solution that will personalize the health experience so that when the program asks employees to input information, it gives them back valuable, relevant, and personally meaningful results that will improve their health.

Phat Chiem
Rally Health