New frontiers in connected health experiences

New technology will transform healthcare: that reality became powerfully clear at the 2017 Connected Health Conference in Boston.

Smart people in smart companies are investing in a wide variety of new technologies and applications. They are exploring, prototyping, learning and improving their products and services at ever-more accelerated rates. Moreover, they are proving efficacy, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as institutions show willingness to experiment and change.

The topics outlined below are trends that will likely affect the markets you’re in. They’re the signals we’re tuning into as we help our clients truly “connect” in the future of connected health.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Machine Learning (ML)

Artificially intelligent systems are informing and reshaping conversations about care delivery in significant ways. IBM Watson, the biggest investment in this space, is being employed in a number of environments to learn from individuals and groups of patients.

Its first purpose is to become a trusted advisor to caregivers. It’s also starting to be used as a “provider” itself: offering AI supported peer-to-peer learning in new contexts like group visits. 

With connected sensors, AI-enabled systems are turning devices and environments into healthcare delivery providers too. By seeing/sensing changes in behavior, recognizing patterns, and then proactively learning the predictors of various healthcare issues, like depression, diabetes, and heart attacks, Watson-enabled systems can take intelligent action in the form of status notifications and caregiver activation. One IBM campaign urges people to think of themselves as ‘data donors’. Like many who’ve signed on to be organ donors, these people agree to empower learning systems like theirs to find hidden insights.

IBM’s forward-thinking approach was nicely captured in a reframing of Watson’s purpose. They re-appropriated the term IT to mean ‘Insights Technologies’ – a framework that is driving the expectations for what their technology can really do.

Modern house calls

Since doctors haven’t been able to afford to make house calls for decades, and home-based care is an exploding need, a wide range of companies are providing connected / IoT-enabled products and services using technology to make the house a part of the broader care delivery ecosystem.

Post-event care connections (like fall detection) are being replaced by continuous-connection monitors that sense balance and provide advice and even aid (in the form of networked lighting and/or networked notifications) to avoid negative events. Sensing the external physical status of patients in their home is now being combined with data from connected biomedical sensors to provide a much more detailed picture of one’s health.

Going one step further, other companies are sensing and monitoring the moods and emotional conditions of these same patients through other sensing and analysis technologies. Digital home companions like and interactive robotic home companions like Mabu from Catalia Health use technologies like facial-expression recognition software and interaction analysis to determine if a patient is doing well in the moment. And just as important, they motivate patients to take a more active role in their healthcare, through positive reinforcements (encouragement and rewards), coaching inputs, or connections to family and professional care providers.

Therapeutic robots take home care to another level. The Paro companion seal in Japan, and Hasbro’s Joy for All companion cat and dog demonstrate the power of connected robots as tools to provide therapeutic benefits and their potential to measure engagement and sense behavior changes that might foreshadow more acute care needs. Where robots sound futuristic, they aren’t. Smart companies are thinking about robotic capabilities in their markets: developing strategies and pursuing partnerships.

Voice frontiers

The advancements of voice recognition technologies like Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Home, and Apple Siri have transformed the computing experience, enabling people to interact with the world through conversation – a more natural way than the tap, swipe, click, scroll, pinch, and flick of the digital interfaces that precede them.

The conversational interactions enabled by these intelligent assistants are instant, intuitive, and offer an almost zero learning curve, making its use in home health care especially valuable for populations like the elderly, disabled and chronically ill. Without lifting a finger a patient can refill a prescription, receive dosage instructions, and call for emergency help. And providers can use this technology as another tool to deliver healthcare to the home.

Voice technologies are being used in other ways as well. Matchstick, a research and innovation firm with whom Essential partners, showed the potential of using Alexa-derived data to inform healthcare design processes. And Orbita, a Boston-based company, described their platform for creating voice-powered healthcare applications.

Looking forward, companies will use vocal biomarkers to detect changes in both psychological and physical states, enabling even more powerful diagnosis and monitoring capabilities. It’s not hard to imagine Alexa, or another company’s connected / voice-enabled product or service engaging users in this way: providing a completely invisible and natural way to detect the earliest symptoms of wide-ranging conditions.

Prescription: motivation

In a powerful presentation on the nuances of stakeholder activation, Eric Asche of the Truth Initiative spoke to recent successes motivating millennials and GenX-ers to stop smoking. By super-targeted psychographic profiles he’s developed very compelling and very different kinds of social-media-based marketing campaigns. He described techniques like “weaponizing” facts, harnessing momentum, shaping the narrative, focusing on the audience, and defining measurable outcomes as his keys to success.

The Truth Initiative is finding new ways to reach very targeted audiences with powerful imagery while using the power of peer networks to understand the consequences of certain behaviors on very personal and social group-responsibility levels. These communication techniques are worth studying and applying to any target audience with whom you want to create a preferred outcome.

Learning by doing and doing

Stuart McGuigan of Johnson & Johnson spoke to the inspiring promise of IoT in healthcare. A large part of their work connecting patients using technology is aimed at collecting critical patient data, generated in the time between doctor visits. This data is inspiring interventions of various kinds, turning patients into healthcare contributors for themselves, and through community building, allowing them to contribute to the care of others. Their patient networks are encouraging positive personal behavior change that magnifies the effect of traditional healthcare delivery practices. The take-away here is that J&J’s success is no accident. They’ve designed over 100 apps so far, learning by doing, learning faster and faster each time – extending their connections to users and their competitive advantage simultaneously.

Doctors of the future

One day a big part of our healthcare system, through massive data use, will view people as the fairly predictable electro-mechanical systems they are: systems that can be expected to respond similarly to similar inputs if they are motivated to embrace those inputs.

Kyu Rhee of IBM was one voice predicting that kind of scenario based on patterns that are already being recognized in big data. In this not-unlikely view of the future, doctors, having relinquished much of their role as diagnostics experts to far more diagnostically capable computers, will evolve into personal healthcare planners and behavior change coaches. Their value will be measured in their ability to address emotional needs, financial situations, and the social factors that influence patient motivation. Great doctors will be the ones who are successful designing and implementing custom care plans that patients adhere to.

The writing is on the wall. The question is: who will make this transition gracefully and what does graceful look like? By employing healthcare coaches that allow physicians to focus more efficiently, the beginnings of this trend can be seen at Iora Health and Twine Health in the Boston area alone.

Human (with technology) centered design

Over the last few decades, the practice of providing healthcare has become as much about business, politics and cost as it is about actually providing care to people. Our healthcare-providing institutions have tried or implemented every imaginable workflow efficiency in our current one-on-one healthcare delivery practice. Unfortunately the result has been unsatisfactory for everyone involved. Providers are frustrated, patients leave confused, and plans aren’t followed. These problems are having negative effects on both patient outcomes and institutional viability. The good news is technologies are maturing to the point where they can be employed to change the delivery dynamic so the care component in healthcare is felt and outcomes improve.

But technology itself is not a complete answer. If a technology-enhanced solution isn’t offered up at the right time, in the right way, and at the right cost, from a provider worth trusting, it won’t be adopted. That’s where design comes in.

These connected experiences must be designed with the individual care provider and individual care receiver at the center of the experience design equation. Good human-centered design thinking is a fine start but expert human-centered design delivery (with a high-level appreciation of market factors) is the key to the adoption of new connected care platforms that change the quality (and quantity) of care we provide. Better one-to-many care is the only way we all win, and better connected experiences that motivate long-term use is the key to success.

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