The confusion over the “digital healthcare” definition

29th January 2020 by Anne Sakoane

If you asked healthcare professionals, industry experts and patients what they thought the definition of “digital healthcare” was, you would likely get a myriad of varied answers. Anything ranging from patient-generated data in wearable technology to companion diagnostics in genomic medicine is likely to get a mention or be covered by any one definition. Thus, the potential for confusion around the term and its true definition - if there is one.

Pharma meets big tech

In the pharmaceutical industry, the trend for partnership with big tech firms, whilst not new, has taken place at a faster rate in recent years[1] (Novartis with Microsoft, Roche with Spark Therapeutics, Pfizer with IBM to name a few). So, where does the integration of pharma and healthcare organisations with big tech end? And where does digital healthcare on its own merit begin? Is there even a difference?

According to the Digital Therapeutics Alliance , [i] for digital healthcare to distinguish itself from other healthcare categories:

“its primary function should be delivering software-generated therapeutic interventions directly to patients to prevent, manage or treat a medical disorder or disease”.[2]

This could more or less read: “all the above” as a correct definition from the industry’s biggest consortium of commercial leaders. At the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference that took place on the 13th-16th January 2020, the themes of this breadth of inclusion in the term’s definition, the potential confusion it causes and how it might be hurting the sector were big topics.[3]

Because of the diverse approaches to the definition, there are big differences in quality and strategy from many new companies dabbling in digital healthcare. We are yet to see how many of these can be successful.

Old technologies

It has also been questioned whether an industry that still uses fax machines in daily communications is ready for the digital innovation available. One counter argument is that fax machines and other ubiquitous “dinosaur/retro” technologies still used in healthcare today are reliable, easy to operate and fix – if it works for healthcare professionals and patients, does it need to be replaced by something new at all? (medDigital have written an article about the “dark side” of using fax machines on the medCrowd blog).

At the JP Morgan conference, American Medical Association CEO James Madara said that better curation is needed in order to help healthcare professionals make informed decisions about recommending new technologies under the label of “digital healthcare” to patients.

There has been no consensus as to whether this broad scope has a potential to harm the sector. The question remains: how would defining “digital health” in a more nuanced way add value to the healthcare sector? Could it be defined and differentiated from other healthcare as succinctly as say, champagne is distinguished from all other drinks on the market?

What the future holds

The truth is probably that time will tell. Digital healthcare has arguably been integrating itself into everyday clinical practice and healthcare research for many decades now. So, its increased umbrella use by emerging partnerships and innovations may help distinguish its application eventually. As time goes on, this could transform it from an aspiration today into a well-defined entity in the future.

What do you think the definition of digital healthcare is?