A Tough Road for Health IT Innovators

The complexity of the U.S. health care system and lackluster follow-through have slowed the pace at which innovations are taking hold despite the rapid evolution of technologies and supportive federal policies, a veteran health policy analyst warned.

Successful but small digital health projects are “dying on the vine,” said Mark Smith president of the California Health Care Foundation, during a keynote address at the opening of the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco September 26. The conference, now in its 11th year, drew more than 1,500 attendees and featured more than 100 demonstrations of technology designed to offer people new ways to tap into social networks and professionals for advice, support, and new ways to better understand their health benefits.

“The model now gives grants to people; those people succeed, and then they write a paper. We’re trying to help innovators get market traction,” Smith said, referring to programs his foundation is funding. The foundation is funding several technology ventures to take their ideas from prototype to production.

While Twitter and cell phones around the world are helping to bring down dictators, Smith notes that healthcare providers’ use of personal technology is lagging most industries.

For digital health startups, he says, much work remains to be done. They will need to get past the process of inventing new technologies and then anticipating wild profits without a viable business model.

The big opportunities, Smith says, are in reducing cost, creating convenience for patients, assisting providers in learning how to use new technologies, and figuring out how to use technology to ease the rapid enrollment of the uninsured into coverage plans ahead of the 2014 individual mandate.

Along the way, health technology entrepreneurs will have to contend with the complexities of our current healthcare system, which often resists change through a combination of union rules, payment rules, and a cultural intransigence.

“This is a moment when big iron meets the foosball crowd,” said Smith.