Health Tech

AppliedVR’s program includes a feature for users to go through guided breathing exercises, which are visualized in a 3-D nature scene. Photo credit: AppliedVR

For the past six years, AppliedVR has been distributing VR headsets to hospitals to see if it could help reduce pain and anxiety during what for many patients can be a stressful experience. Now, the digital health startup is testing its platform to see if it can have a similar effect in a home setting.

The Los Angeles-based company shared the results of a pivotal trial showing its VR program was effective in helping people manage chronic lower back pain at home. The results of the randomized controlled trial, published Wednesday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, showed that users reported a 42% reduction in pain intensity, though the study had certain limitations.

“We were ecstatic with the results we got,” CEO Matthew Stoudt said in a phone interview, adding that he plans to make a submission to the Food and Drug Administration this year.

“Our long-term vision has always been, how do we bring this into the home?” he added. “Ultimately, we are a doctor-prescribed payer-reimbursed model. We’re focused on building a body of evidence.”

Last year, AppliedVR got Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA after publishing results showing early successes in using its program to help people manage fibromyalgia and lower back pain at home. The designation could help accelerate the company’s pathway through the FDA and, thanks to a recent regulatory change, could even lead to a short path to Medicare coverage.

The most recent study tested whether the digital program was effective in reducing lower-back pain for people that went through an eight-week program. Unlike some other virtual programs, it’s focused less on physical therapy exercises and more on cognitive-behavioral therapy for pain management.

Called EaseVRx, the self-guided course walks users through pain education and guided breathing exercises with a nature scene that responds to their breathing. For example, wind blowing in the background might calm as a user slows their breath.

“We’re trying to help people acquire key pain management skills, and the way we can enhance learning and encoding of information is to provide rapid biofeedback in an immersive environment,” said Beth Darnall, AppliedVR’s chief science advisor, who co-authored the study.

Separating immersion from intervention
The double-blind study was also designed to answer questions from the FDA on how much of the therapeutic effect was from merely wearing a headset versus interacting with AppliedVR’s program. To test this, the company created a “sham” VR program that consisted of 2-D nature scenes, designed to hold users’ attention but without a specific therapeutic effect.

While the intervention group reported their average pain intensity decreased from 5.1 to 2.9 after eight weeks, the control group saw a more modest decrease, from 5.2 to 4.

“It’s exciting that we substantially exceeded the effect of the sham,” she said.

Participants that used EaseVRx also reported reductions in pain interfering with their activity, sleep, mood and stress levels.

Study limitations
That said, the study still had some significant limitations. An important one: The vast majority of the 179 adults who participated were white, female and college-educated, representing a narrow demographic.

Since the study was not linked to medical care, all data were self-reported, other than participants’ use of the VR headset. Because of this, “…there was no ability to confirm pain diagnoses or analgesic prescription information,” according to the paper.

About 90% of users stuck with the program, which Stoudt attributed to years of work to make the headset easier to use.

In addition to seeking FDA clearance, AppliedVR plans to build a system into the headset that would capture users’ breathing rate, so that no other devices need to be connected for them to receive feedback while going through the program.

“We have a ton of scars on our back from a lot of things we’ve done wrong in terms of sending devices into the home,” he said. “Ease of use is going to be the biggest barrier to ultimate adoption.”

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When IBM first launched its Watson Health unit in 2015, it had to live up to a grandiose vision. The company’s AI creation, popularized by its win on Jeopardy!, was pitched to oncologists as a tool that could comb through medical literature and cancer patients’ health records, detecting patterns that they could not.

Reports later found that it fell short of those claims, and in some cases, offered ‘unsafe and incorrect’ suggestions. Now, IBM might be considering selling its Watson Health unit, as it focuses more on its cloud computing business, according to the Wall Street Journal. Citing anonymous sources, the Journal reported the health unit brought in $1 billion in revenue and isn’t currently profitable.

IBM declined to comment on the report, and it’s not clear who would buy the company. But it’s another example of a high-flying healthcare effort that might have tried to do too much all at once, and a case where marketing overtook the science.

Other tech behemoths have also stumbled in their much-vaunted plans to disrupt healthcare. Haven, a joint venture between Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to combat rising healthcare costs, dissolved as the three companies pursued their own efforts.

Part of the challenge is that it’s difficult for these large companies to move quickly, while in the same span, dozens of startups are bringing their own solutions to market.

“There’s a contextual dynamic that large companies will by definition not move as quickly as early-stage innovative companies,” said Michael Greeley, co-founder and general partner with Flare Capital Partners. “A product roadmap that a big tech company might set for the end of the year, by the time committees meet and budget, the year has gone by.”

Two years ago, IBM started winding down sales of Watson for Drug Discovery to pharmaceutical companies, because it wasn’t yielding big enough financial returns. Before that, the general manager of the division also stepped down for a different role at the company.

Facing declining revenues, in an investor call last month, the company’s new CEO, Arvind Krishna, said he was looking to redefine IBM’s future as a cloud platform and AI company.

“This is where we are focusing the bulk of our efforts, time and investments,” he said.

Over-hyped and under-delivered

With the way IBM had marketed Watson for Oncology, “There was clearly always a mismatch in the reality and the promise of what they were going to bring to market,” Greeley said.

More time would have been needed to get closer to that goal. Building AI tools for healthcare requires a huge amount of high-quality data that can be hard to get, and complicated to analyze.

“To date, there’s been far more heat than light,” wrote David Shaywitz, founder of health-tech advisory firm Astounding HealthTech. “There’s a lot of complexity to health data that requires domain expertise to understand, and just sticking a lot of values in a data lake or data swamp and then setting algorithms loose on it hasn’t proved especially productive to date.”

Despite that, Shaywitz still remains optimistic that AI will have a role in medicine in drug development in the future. He pointed to Flatiron Health as an example of one startup that has done well – it was acquired by Roche in 2018 for $1.9 billion.

He said that success relies on the ability for health and tech experts to collaborate as equal partners,  something that’s “vanishingly rare” at big tech, biopharma and healthcare companies.

 Whatever happens with Watson, Greeley still doesn’t see tech companies’ interest in healthcare waning anytime soon, as Amazon wades into the prescription drug market and Google tries to woo more health systems with cloud partnerships.

“I think we’re seeing renewed intrigue by consumer tech, the Googles and Facebooks of the world,” he said. “I think because healthcare is such an important part of the economy, they will continue to be active with acquisitions.”

Photo credit: Getty Images, wigglestick

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Humana and IBM Watson Health are collaborating to provide the insurer’s Employer Group members with access to a conversational AI solution.

The solution, called the IBM Watson Assistant for Health Benefits, is an AI-enabled, cloud-based virtual assistant. The AI assistant gives users information about member benefits, coverage, claims, referrals and healthcare cost estimates, said an IBM Watson Health spokeswomen, who declined to be named, in an email.

The solution will be made available to all members of the Louisville, Kentucky-based payer’s Employer Group, which includes 1.3 million medical and 1.8 million dental members.

IBM is not the only tech giant that is using AI chatbot technology to make inroads in healthcare. Microsoft, for example, has been popular among insurers and providers alike, launching triage chatbots and other AI technology. For IBM, it also affords the chance to prove its value in offering AI services dedicated to healthcare — it stumbled in 2017 in its loftier vision to use the technology to one day revolutionize cancer care and more recently in 2019 when it abandoned the AI product meant to speed up drug discovery.

But Humana believes that IBM Watson Health’s AI assistant will provide several benefits to health plan members, said a spokesman for the insurer, who declined to be named, in an email. Specifically, it will provide personalized answers to questions from members.

“Customers want us to make it easy, meet on their terms, and save them time,” he said. “The Watson [Assistant for Health Benefits] offers immediate answers to the majority of customer questions without [them] having to call in for help.”

In addition, the solution can aid in the move toward price transparency, which is now a part of federal regulations for insurers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, insurers must disclose negotiated rates and provide estimates of patient out-of-pocket costs for 500 services and items per a federal rule finalized in October. Payers must make that information publicly available for all items and services starting Jan. 1, 2024.

The IBM AI assistant’s cost transparency tool, which uses historical claims and provider data to calculate cost estimates for members, will help the insurer comply with the federal rule.

This is not the first time Humana and Armonk, New York-based IBM Watson Health have partnered on AI technology. The companies developed the Provider Services Conversational Voice Agent with Watson, which was made available to healthcare providers in 2019.

“Given the success, both parties see considerable value in investing in the co-creation of a new, cloud-native, healthcare-specific product,” said the Humana spokesman. “IBM has the technical experience to optimize the AI platform and Humana has the business expertise to bring forward the desired customer experiences.”

The collaboration between the payer and technology company is coming as the use of AI chatbots is soaring.

Though interest in AI-powered digital assistants was growing prior to 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated its use. Companies, like chatbot and voice bot company Syllable, found themselves overwhelmed by demand, and health systems like Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Springfield, Illinois-based Memorial Health System quickly developed and deployed the technology.

AI-powered chatbot use is expected to grow and continue to shape healthcare in 2021.

Photo: Gerasimov174, Getty Images

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Digital health startup Sharecare plans to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company. Photo credit: Sharecare

Digital health startup Sharecare confirmed reports that it plans to go public through a merger with a blank-check company. The Atlanta-based startup plans to merge with a special-purpose acquisition company created by Alan Mnuchin, CEO of Falcon Capital and brother of former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The deal would value Sharecare at $3.9 billion and add $400 million to its balance sheet. It plans to use the funds to  grow its business, build out its salesforce, and help pay for its recent acquisition of healthcare artificial intelligence startup Doc.AI.

Sharecare was founded in 2012 WebMD creator Jeff Arnold and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz. Started as a health and wellness social media platform, the company later began working with heath plans with its acquisition of Healthways’ population health services business in 2016. It has raised $450 million in funding to date.

“We started Sharecare to leverage innovations in consumer technology – specifically the smartphone – to create a frictionless experience that engages people across the dynamic continuum of their healthcare needs,” Arnold said in a news release. “By integrating fragmented point solutions and bringing together stakeholders across the healthcare ecosystem into one connected virtual care platform, we believe that Sharecare is uniquely positioned to transform the way people access, providers deliver, and employers and health plans administer high quality, cost efficient healthcare.”

Blank-check company Falcon Capital Acquisition Corp. will bring $345 million of cash held in a trust to the deal. Private investors including Koch Strategic Platforms, Baron Capital Group, Eldridge, Woodline Partners LP and Digital Alpha will contribute $425 million in a private investment in public equity (PIPE).

Anthem will also make a direct investment into Sharecare for an undisclosed amount after its chief digital officer, Rajeev Ronanki, recently joined Sharecare’s board of directors. 

“Through this relationship, we will leverage human-centered design and digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, that increase consumer engagement, deliver more affordable healthcare, and achieve better health outcomes through services such as next generation personalized healthcare concierge and advocacy services,” Ronanki said in a news release.

After the acquisition closes, Falcon will own roughly 20% of the company. Mnuchin and Jeff Sagansky, an independent director of Falcon, will join Sharecare’s board.

Sharecare has a hodgepodge of features, from pharmacy discount cards to a smoking cessation app to a tool that’s supposed to detect a user’s stress levels from listening to their voice. So far, the lion’s share of the company’s business is  its work with health plans, which are expected to bring in more than half of its revenue for 2021, an estimated $227 million, according to the company’s investor presentation.

For example, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona began offering the app to its members last year, including rewarding them for tracking their steps. Users are also instructed to answer a lengthy survey for suggestions to improve their health. Some of Sharecare’s other customers include Anthem, Centene, Humana, Walmart and StateFarm.

Another portion of the Sharecare’s business is focused on offering solutions to payers and clinicians, which brought in roughly $80 million last year. For example, it acquired claims review company WhiteHatAI last year, and it also acquired medical records company BACTES, which it rebranded as Sharecare Health Data Services.

Sharecare also has an advertising business, which brought in roughly $56 million last year. Controversially, that included sponsored health advice in Q&As; the company offers condition-specific marketing to pharmaceutical companies and touts its “real-time health profiling engine” in investor slides. But it cannot target ads to users who access the app through their insurance, only those who download it for free, according to its privacy policy.

In the last three years, Sharecare’s revenue has declined slightly, from $347 million in 2017 to $340 million in 2019. Its expected revenue for 2020 is $330 million, with the company attributing the decrease to reduced physician visits and fewer visits at its in-person diabetes clinics, according to an investor presentation.

It reported a $40 million net loss in 2019, compared to a $55 million net loss in 2018.

Still, the company said it expects to bring in $512 million in revenue in 2022, and has “multiple paths” to more than $1 billion in medium-term revenue.

The deal is expected to close next quarter, with Sharecare trading on Nasdaq under the ticker “SHCR.”

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Insightin Health, a company that offers payers a personalized member engagement platform, has raised $12 million in a Series A funding round.

The round was co-led by the Blue Venture Fund — a collaboration between Blue Cross Blue Shield companies, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and Sandbox — and healthcare growth equity fund Blue Heron Capital.

Insightin Health plans to use the new funds to scale its proprietary inGAGE platform, which is designed to help payers retain and engage their members, said Enam Noor, CEO of Insightin Health, in an email.

The platform applies natural language processing to clinical information and social determinants of health and then generates an algorithm for care management and retention for each member, he explained.

“The AI-driven approach and machine learning algorithm connects the dots for all of the data sources and aggregates the trends for predictive outcomes,” he said. “[The platform makes] recommendations for every touchpoint of member communications and activities.”

Currently, the platform has aggregated data for more than 5 million people.

Scaling the inGAGE platform will allow Insightin Health to bring in new clients and provide new tools within the platform for existing customers.

“[Blue Venture Fund is] committed as an organization to improve the health system, and we feel a solution like Insightin Health takes great strides in getting us there,” said Binoy Bhansali, managing director of the Blue Venture Fund, in a news release. “Their ability to leverage data strategically elevates Medicare Advantage and Managed Medicaid plans’ abilities to improve quality, reduce costs, and drive growth and retention by better engaging members.”

Other investors in the funding round included Health Catalyst Capital, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest fund and SaaS Ventures.

The market for personalized consumer engagement platforms is crowded, with companies like Zipari, Welltok and Health Mine all jostling for market share. In addition, large enterprise companies are moving into the healthcare space, such as SalesForce and Microsoft, Noor said.

But Insightin Health sets itself apart by being the only single platform that is able to aggregate all data points for both structured and unstructured data into one ecosystem, he added.

In contrast to many companies that have suffered amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Insightin Health has fared well.

Though Noor declined to share the company’s current valuation, he said Insightin Health experienced 170% revenue growth year-over-year from 2019 to 2020. The company is aiming for similar growth this year.

The company’s growth during the pandemic is partly due to the fact that Insightin Health developed tools focused on the senior population in March 2020, Noor said. These tools gather data on Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and then use machine learning to help payers determine patient risk factors.

Photo: StockFinland, Getty Images

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Paige, A computational pathology startup spun out of Memorial Sloan Kettering, raised $100 million in a series C funding round. The New York-based company is developing clinical decision support tools for pathologists, and plans to use the funds to further advance its technology.

Paige was started in 2018 by Dr. Thomas Fuchs, who spun out the company from research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The startup had a research agreement to receive de-identified images of digitized pathology slides, which it is using to make AI tools across multiple cancer subtypes, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering holds an equity stake in the company.

Earlier this year, Paige received 510(k) clearance from the Food and Drug Administration for a digital pathology image viewer. It also received a Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA for an AI tool for cancer diagnosis.

None of Paige’s clinical decision support tools are yet cleared to be used for diagnostics in the U.S. But in Europe, it has two CE-marked solutions to detect areas of suspected prostate cancer or breast cancer.

With the new funds, Paige plans to double its headcount, with roughly 70 new employees across its engineering and commercial teams.

“This investment reaffirms the vast potential of the Paige platform for clinical and biopharmaceutical drug development applications,” Paige CEO Leo Grady said in a news release. “These funds will enable us to build additional AI-based products within and outside of oncology, deliver these products to laboratories and clinicians globally, and invest in our talent across engineering and commercial functions.”

Photo credit: Abscent84, Getty Images

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Digital therapy startup Talkspace plans to go public in a blank-check deal that would value the company at $1.4 billion. The company, founded in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Oren and Roni Frank, lets users text or video chat with therapists.

The company will go public through a merger with a subsidiary of Hudson Executive Capital, the firm founded by former J.P. Morgan CFO Doug Braunstein. It will be listed on Nasdaq under ‘TALK’.

Last year, special-purpose acquisition company Hudson Executive Investment Corp. raised $360 million in an IPO. Private investors also poured $300 million into the deal, including Federated Hermes Kaufmann Funds, Jennison Associates, Woodline Partners and Deerfield.

Talkspace will get $250 million in growth capital after the merger closes. The deal is expected to close in the first or second quarter of 2021.

Here are four takeaways from the company’s IPO plans:

Employers were a big source of growth during the pandemic

Like other mental health startups, Talkspace saw a surge in users during the pandemic. In the last year, it saw the number of cash-paying users increase from 20,000 to 28,000.

But partnerships with companies like Blackstone and Google, and insurers such as Humana and Cigna, have been an even bigger source of business for Talkspace.

“Large employers are aware of the gap in the market that needs to be filled to allow more people to access behavioral health care,” CEO Oren Frank said in an investor presentation on Wednesday.

Companies had started to take notice of the shortage of mental healthcare providers before the pandemic. But the problem became even more pressing in the last year.

This led to a number of companies looking for ways to offer more mental health services—including those provided by Talkspace. In the last year, the company saw the number of covered lives increase from 2 million in the first quarter of last year to 39 million.

Talkspace CFO Mark Hirschhorn said Covid-19 had driven “tremendous unsolicited inbound interest in our commercial offerings.”

The startup forecasts its profit will double

Talkspace appears to enjoy large margins from its text-based therapy business. In 2019, the startup brought in $20 million in profit at a 51% margin, according to a slide shared with investors. For 2020, the company expects $47 million in profit with a 63% margin.

The startup also expects its revenue to nearly double, from $38 million in 2019 to $74 million in 2020.

Talkspace’s users currently pay $65 per week to be able to text a therapist or for audio messaging. For live video, the cost rises to $79 per week.

At the same time, the business model used by on-demand therapy platforms has come under fire as therapists report low pay. Therapists also are required to respond within a certain timeframe, or face docked pay, according to the New York Times.

Data about text-based therapy is limited

Although users have flocked to text-based therapy, it’s not clear whether it’s as effective as talking to a therapist face-to-face.

A small study published in 2015, funded by Talkspace, indicated an improvement in patients’ well being after four months of text therapy. But there is still little peer-reviewed research on the subject.

On one hand, a text-based approach makes therapy available to more people. Frank said more than 60% of the company’s users have never been to any form of therapy before.

On the other hand, a text message misses many important visual cues, such as a person’s body language or expression. From a convenience perspective, however, the model is likely here to stay.

“People will reasonably have a lot of questions. It is disruptive and part of a broader approach to telehealth,” Enrico Picozza, a partner at HLM Venture Partners, wrote in an email. “We were one of the first investors in Teladoc at a time when other investors were running from the company because of many challenges preventing early-adoption.  It was unclear if telehealth would work at that time but we saw the long term potential. Patients as well as physicians need to get comfortable with new technologies and modalities. Once that occurs and reimbursement is clarified, it is off to the races. We see that happening with text-based care in the near future.”

Other mental health startups see growth

Though Talkspace is a well-recognized brand, with celebrity backers like Demi Lovato and Michael Phelps, other therapy startups have seen a boom in activity over the last year. One of its competitors, Lyra Health, recently was valued at $1.1 billion, and has brought on clients including Starbucks and Morgan Stanley in the last year. Ginger, another startup that offers text-based therapy and coaching, also recently raised a large funding round.

Telehealth companies have also seen more patients seeking out therapy. Earlier this year, MDLive said behavioral health visits were its fastest-growing segment.

Photo credit: Microne, Getty Images

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A coalition, comprising of health technology companies, providers and nonprofits, announced Thursday that they will establish an initiative to provide people with digital access to their Covid-19 vaccination records.

Two vaccines have so far been approved for administration in the U.S. — one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, and the other by Moderna. The collaborative effort comes as doses of the vaccines are slowly making their way across the country, and people are figuring out what the next phase of the pandemic will look like.

That new phase will likely present unique challenges, including tracking who gets which vaccine, whether they get a one-or two-dose vaccine, where they receive their vaccine and so on, said Dr. John Halamka, president of Mayo Clinic Platform, in a phone interview. Currently, both Modera and Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine require two doses three to four weeks apart.

As the country thinks about opening back up and resuming to pre-pandemic levels of activity, “we [will] need a vaccine credential we can trust,” he said.

Mayo Clinic is just one of the high-profile organizations that have joined the coalition to create the Vaccination Credential Initiative. Others include Microsoft, Mitre, The Commons Project Foundation as well as EHR giants Epic and Cerner.

“We saw this as a critical opportunity to help our healthcare organizations and the world start the recovery process,” said David Bradshaw, senior vice president, consumer and employer solutions at Cerner, in an email. “We know vaccines will play a critical role in that and we wanted to be able to proactively inform and design to the specifications.”

The Vaccination Credential Initiative is developing a QR code that will enable individuals to easily provide their vaccination credentials when needed, Halamka explained.

The coalition has agreed on the standard for how the vaccine credential gets displayed in the QR code, he said. The standard was created by Josh Mandel, chief architect at Microsoft Healthcare, and is called the SMART Health Cards specification. It was developed with a short-term goal of allowing an individual to receive the Covid-19 vaccine or lab results and present these results to another party in a verifiable manner. The specification is based on the W3C Verifiable Credential — a credential that has authorship that can be cryptographically verified — and HL7 Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources standards.

Now, the coalition needs to work on the “underlying plumbing behind it,” Halamka said. This includes figuring out how the patient gets access to the code after receiving the vaccine from whichever site they select — their doctor’s office, a Walgreens, a CVS, or any other vaccination site. Patients will have full control over their QR code and will be able to access it through any smartphone. They will have also the option of printing it out and keeping a physical copy. 

The coalition’s efforts come on the heels of a much-maligned vaccine rollout. More than 30 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccines have been distributed, but only a little over 11 million have been administered, according to data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

In an effort to speed up the process, the Trump administration announced Tuesday that it plans to release all reserves of vaccine doses that were initially held back to administer second doses, The New York Times reported. The administration also told states to begin vaccinating every individual 65 and older and people with underlying medical conditions.

Looking ahead, the incoming administration has made it clear that vaccine distribution will be an early priority, with President-elect Joe Biden saying in a speech Thursday that his relief plan will include “hundreds of billions” of dollars for a national vaccination program and public health initiatives like testing and contact tracing, NPR reported. Biden has also committed to having 100 million people vaccinated in his first 100 days.

While that goal seems ambitious, were it to be achieved, getting back to normal will require a verifiable record of people being vaccinated.

Halamka believes that coalitions like this one can have a huge impact on easing that transition.

“When I see nontraditional coalitions coming together — and that means government, academia, industry — all work[ing] together for the benefit of society, we can achieve great change,” he said.

Photo: Teka77, Getty Images

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aging, senior, old

The pandemic has cast a spotlight on healthcare’s technological shortcomings, accelerating the industry’s historically slow march toward digitization. Confronted with lockdowns and social-distancing mandates, providers have turned to digital communication and data management, e-visits, and telehealth to continue serving patients. In response, enterprising firms of all shapes and sizes—from tech giants to health-app startups—are scrambling to meet this need with secure, efficient, and reliable technology aimed at streamlining remote care.

For those working on the health IT side of things, this demand surge for digital healthcare feels like the dawning of a new era. It’s incredibly exciting to see providers, payers, and patients beginning to embrace digital innovation and experience the positive impact these technologies have on care delivery. Amid all this excitement, however, I find myself feeling leery of how quickly the industry is shifting toward digitization.

I think back to a recent experience my son and I had at a doctor’s office. When we entered the waiting room, we exchanged quick, nervous glances with the other patients in the space before checking in online. Our only human interaction was a brief conversation with the desk attendant—through a plexiglass divider.

While I know that touchless experiences are all the rage (and for good reason), I wonder: if we’re not careful about our migration toward digital care, will human touch and face-to-face interactions become a thing of the past? And will healthcare lose empathy if it swings too far digitally?

There is power in human touch.
Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It forges personal connections, decodes human emotion, and—from a healthcare perspective—promotes trust and healing.

In his book titled, “In the Hands of Doctors: Touch and Trust in Medical Care,” historian Paul Stepansky explores how American medicine has changed since the 19th century, focusing on the role of touch in building trust between doctors and patients. In it he writes, “Medicine then was all about touching, and patients welcomed their touch. It was integral to doctoring, and partly because physicians were part of the community, medicine was about laying hands.”

Using touch as a powerful healing tool is a practice that spans back even further than what Stepansky documented in his book. According to research published in the International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, the traditional shamans of the North East Australian rainforest have used touch and talk to heal mental and physical disorders for thousands of years. To the aboriginals, touch and human interaction were key to learning secret information about the body, reliably guiding them to the root of the problem.

Modern-day research corroborates these time-tested beliefs. Researchers have published countless studies over the past decade championing the power of touch and empathy in medicine by showing that:

Touch is something we crave on a primal level, and it has proven to be immensely powerful when comforting, diagnosing, and treating patients. But in our rush to digitize every aspect of the healthcare journey, are we leaving this elemental practice behind?

Technology will never replace human interaction
Effective, modern medicine cannot survive without technology. As someone who works for a rehab therapy software company, I fully understand the impact EMRs, mobile apps, telehealth, and general treatment technologies have on improving patient care and outcomes. Regardless of how intuitive the software—or how advanced the technology—patients will always highly value and seek out human touch because:

  1. They remain wary of AI and other nuanced technologies. According to a recent Harvard Business Review report, “patients believe that their medical needs are unique and cannot be adequately addressed by algorithms.” Patient experiences aren’t meant to be 100% digital. And despite the accuracy of computers, humans prefer to seek care from other human beings.
  2. They have emotional needs. And as such, life-altering diagnoses and unforeseen outcomes are best delivered by a living, breathing, feeling individual who can fully understand and address these needs.
  3. Physical examinations are reassuring and restorative. Abraham Verghese, a physician, author, and Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University has spoken extensively about the importance of this rudimentary practice, stating that “when [physicians] shortcut the physical exam, when [they] lean towards ordering tests instead of talking to and examining the patient, [they] not only overlook simple diagnoses…[they’re] losing a ritual that I believe is transformative, transcendent, and is at the heart of the patient-physician relationship.”

We must ask ourselves how we can preserve touch in health care

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a clear-cut solution to this question yet. At best, technology helps providers reach more patients, reduces administrative burden, and expands access to treatment. At worst, it creates a physical barrier between provider and patient, extinguishing empathy and damaging patient rapport. All things considered, technology’s sole constant is that it will only be as good as the people who created and are using it.

So, from a health technologist’s perspective, I’ll offer up the following considerations for developing digital health tools in the years to come:

  • Focus on the problems rather than the potential solutions
     It’s easy to get distracted by the sheer number of possible solutions your technology can provide. Instead, prioritize your focus by tackling the problems that will deliver the biggest impact once solved. Then, commit your energy to understanding the nuances of those problems. This mindset keeps patient needs front and center, steering you away from feature-rich products that deliver little benefit.
  • Be mindful of unintended consequences. Digital patient intakes and touchless experiences were created for all the right reasons. Yet, however well-intentioned they may be, digital tools always run the risk of producing unintended consequences. As such, physicians and health technologists must work together to understand what problems might occur (e.g., misdiagnoses, overlooked symptoms, missed chances to develop a rapport with patients) if technology is left unchecked.

Medicine will never progress without technology—there’s no denying that. But for the foreseeable future, human interaction remains an instrumental part of the healthcare experience. So, moving forward, healthcare professionals must find a way to blend the sophistication of technology with the power of touch in order to continue improving patient experiences, care, and outcomes.

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Earth planet with global routes and light dots representing global connection and communication.

Jonathan Siddharth, co-founder and CEO of Turing, talks about how the rise of Turing, a platform that provides access to a global pool of 170,000 talented software engineers in more than 50 countries, is supporting the needs of the healthcare industry and other sectors.

Why did you start this company?

While building out my prior startup, my co-founder and I found it increasingly difficult to hire highly skilled software engineers in Silicon Valley. There was simply a shortage of qualified candidates. As a result we turned to working with remote developers. But there was no system to effectively identify remote developer candidates with the right skills. So we had to develop our own system. The experience taught us that although talent exists everywhere around the globe, that’s not the case with opportunities for challenging work at competitive earnings.

Turing CEO Jonathan Siddharth

What specific need/problem are you seeking to address in healthcare?

Over the past few years, the healthcare industry, along with most other industries, has undertaken a massive digital transformation. This includes a wide range of startup companies employing digital technology to do everything from using AI to identify new drugs and speed up clinical trials, to creating apps to providing easier access to health services and even decrease the cost of health insurance. Every major healthcare and pharmaceutical company is also on their own journey of digital transformation.

The fuel that enables this digital transformation for both startups and major healthcare concerns is access to highly qualified software engineers. Yet, the availability of such talent is severely limited in many major markets, such as Silicon Valley, New York, London and other major centers of tech innovation.

Turing was founded on the idea that while talent is global, opportunity is not. Our platform provides access to a global pool of 170,000 talented software engineers in more than 50 countries. In this way, healthcare companies that need access to highly skilled developers can use Turing to source, vet, engage and manage remote software engineers. And in doing so we are helping the healthcare industry to put the power of digital technology to work solving some of the most pressing health-related concerns facing society today.

What does your product do? How does it work?

Turing is a platform for sourcing and vetting, matching, and managing remote software engineers. Turing enables companies to reduce the time it takes to hire highly skilled software engineers from months to days. Further Turing enables companies to effectively manage remote developers, ensuring they are meeting expectations, while quickly identifying and resolving.

Turing uses advanced data science to source and vet developers, to match the developer with the right skills and experience with the needs of its client companies and to provide post-match quality control.

Turing has created a global pool of more than 170,000 software engineers from more than 50 nations. Turing has accomplished this using a platform that employs automated end-to-end vetting of remote engineers. This system includes self-reporting of skills by developer candidates, validation of skills through automated skill-level testing and interviews, and continuously updated on the job skill advancement.

Turing’s post-match quality control uses automated early detection and mitigation of any performance issues and collects job performance data to improve future matches.

Turing’s latest innovation employs virtual machine technology to enable developers who may not have access to the most advanced computers to work on software projects that require the latest technology. This is accomplished while simultaneously protecting the client’s code and resources and detecting any possible fraud on the part of the remote developer.

Is this your first healthcare startup? What’s your background in healthcare?

We are a company that helps other companies source, vet, hire and manage remote software developers. As the healthcare industry undergoes digital transformation at every level, from discovery of new drugs to managing subscriber health benefits, access to highly qualified software engineers has become critical to the success of every company in the healthcare industry.

Turing was designed to help companies in the healthcare industry meet this challenge. We have a great deal of experience working with healthcare companies and understand their special needs.

We should note, one of our key executives, Prakash Gupta, has extensive experience in the healthcare industry.

What is your company’s business model?

Turing’s revenue is based upon fees charged to customers for its sourcing, vetting, matching and managing services of remote software engineers. Customers pay Turing for hours worked by remote software engineers and Turing handles all payments to those engineers, making the process seamless for both customers and engineers.

Who is your customer? How do you generate revenue?

Our customers are both startups (at the Series A level and above) and the enterprise, both traditional and technology unicorns. Basically any company whose business success is dependent upon access to highly skilled software engineers, which today is basically every company in every industry.

In the healthcare industry the need is particularly acute because many of these companies need engineers with a very high skill level, including special skills, such as experience with machine learning and AI technologies.

Our typical customer in terms of the buyer is pretty broad. They include CEOs, CTOs, VPs of Engineering and Product, and Hiring Managers. Also, CIOs, CHROs and Heads of Procurement and Product Innovation Teams, among others.

Photo: Filograph, Getty Images

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