The renewed promise of health care innovation

Think health care has changed? Think again: the changes have just begun.

Over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, changes in health care services are likely to accelerate. In the years to come, however, the changes won’t result from new reforms or regulations.

Instead, if the presentations at a February 1 event in Minneapolis are any indication, they’ll result from unprecedented innovations, all intended to improve health and wellness while:

  • Slowing, and perhaps reversing, the rapid increases in health care costs;
  • Putting more control over health and wellness into the hands of the individual; and
  • Reducing inefficiencies in health care services and, along with them, physical and medical risks to the individual.
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The audience for the February 1 event featuring health care innovators

At the event, medical technology and biotechnology specialists, research scientists, “Big Data” experts and others made pitches for their startup firms to an audience of potential investors. The audience of 200 illustrated the keen interest and demand for such innovations: venture capitalists, angel investors, executives of health care systems and nursing home firms, and the simply curious.

The large turnout surprised many. Few apparently expected to so many attend a little-publicized “meet-up” in a large, empty storage space of a company in an industrial park. But the audience – filling up pre-sent folding chairs and spilling over to standing room in the back and sides of the room – listened attentively, looking for profitable returns on promising new technologies, applications and products.

And business’ interest in health care services is strong. An officer of a venture capital fund specializing in health care investments told the crowd that U.S. health care services represent a $4.5 billion market, and it continues to grow.

From benefits to blood samples

What are some of the emerging health care service innovations? Several of them – perhaps unthinkable just a few years ago – are not that far off:

Moving health care benefits away from employers: A representative of one tech company described the software system offered by his firm to businesses. The system migrates an employer’s health insurance plan to a platform by which employees, with dollars provided by the employer, can purchase coverage on the individual market. The rep asserted that by 2020, most U.S. businesses will not offer group plans. He said 90 percent of employees would move to the individual market, saving businesses trillions of dollars.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 2.49.07 PMAn easier sample: An executive of another startup explained his firm’s tool for taking “finger stick” blood samples more quickly and easily than current blood sampling. Blood tests, he said, currently aren’t part of the “health optimization” market, which includes supplements and fitness tests. The startup’s product, he said, will change that. The firm’s new tests can measure antioxidants, omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, cortisol, vitamins, folic acid, amino acids and other substances.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 2.52.46 PMThe right call on prescriptions: Currently, health care inefficiency occurs in drug prescribing, where physicians may try different drug types and dosages before the correct prescription is identified. A startup that participated in the event has developed a post-diagnostic DNA test that, it said, can determine response to various hypertension drugs, “shortening 15 months of trial and error to weeks, saving $50 billion in direct costs.” The company includes scientists from the Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota, Kaiser Permanente and the University of Arizona.

More power to seniors: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2060 the U.S. population of people, age 65 and older, will more than double its 2012 total. At the same time, health care advances mean healthier, longer lives and more health care autonomy for seniors. One startup promised in-home health risk assessments for seniors, delivering the information directly to a patient’s physician to better inform health care decisions and helping seniors live healthier lives.

A personal virtual coach: Another startup has developed what it calls a “behavior changing and employee wellness platform.” The key? “Intelligent virtual coaching” where, instead of an expensive personal coach, the platform interacts with the employee to guide him or her in making lifestyle, exercise and other choices to promote personal health and wellness.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 2.55.18 PMGetting systems to talk to each other. The 2009 federal “stimulus” required that, by 2014, all public and private healthcare providers must have adopted and demonstrated “meaningful use” of electronic medical records, or EMRs. Yet, there are different EMR systems, and most don’t communicate well with one another. One company at the meeting pitched an application that facilitates better “interoperability” and connections between different EMR systems.

Added protection for athletes

And, at a time when heightened attention is focused on concussions and other athletic injuries, two startups have developed tools to address the problem:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 8.57.51 AMAn athletic fingerprint: One firm has developed a mobile, web-based “athletic health record” for youth athletes, accessible to the athlete’s parents or guardians, coaches and health care providers. The health record is intended to provide a complete picture of a child’s medical background, including information on any injuries or pre-existing conditions. It would follow an athlete throughout childhood, providing real-time communication of any injuries.

Guarding against concussions: Another startup is developing a mouth guard that syncs with a mobile app. It alerts parents, coaches and trainers in real time when an athlete should be assessed for a concussion. The goal: eliminate undetected concussions and the risk of permanent damage.

It’s said that, in a competitive, free enterprise system, if you don’t innovate, you’re dead. Observing the innovators, and their investor audience, at the event, it became clear that many of the most promising health care innovations are happening at the grassroots, in small laboratories and offices across the country. The innovations that will change health care in the coming years are limited only in the imaginations and energy of such entrepreneurs.

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