After A Year And A Half Boom In Digital Health, Troubles Return

6 September 2021
Digital health has recently seen acceleration like never before. An article by McKinsey, Telehealth: A quarter-trillion-dollar post-COVID-19 reality? suggests that telehealth use has increased 38X compared to January 2020. Likewise,  Deloitte report The future unmasked. Predicting the future of healthcare and life sciences in 2025 mentions a 34% increase in the downloads of smartphone health apps in 2020 compared to 2019, whereas the latest study by IQVIA, Digital Health Trends 2021, states that 90,000 new health apps were launched in 2020. There are now about 350,000 mobile health apps available. Moreover, RockHealth reports that the global medtech funding in the first half of 2021 has doubled compared to June 2020, which has broken earlier records. By June this year, venture capital funds (VCs) in Europe had invested 2.6 times more in young companies working on digital health care solutions than in the corresponding period of last year. On top of that, numerous surveys demonstrate the immense impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the digitization in healthcare: telemedicine, teleconsultations, mobile health apps, and telemonitoring. But do all these statistics and reports give us a full image of the market? Does sudden growth mean a long-term sustainable adoption? Not really. Positive trends are like the draft horses of transformation, and it is going to become a lot harder for them over time.

The counterbalance of negative trends

Some installed applications will remain on smartphones for longer, changing the patients’ attitude towards mobile health. Doctors and nurses who switched to remote consultations have got used to this new form of communication. Many individuals have used virtual care options for the first time. Investments in technical infrastructure will gradually improve access to the online services offered by public authorities and health facilities. These “micro transformations” accumulate into a more extensive process of change. Within the next five years, they may become more powerful than often discussed mega trends like funding, the number of mobile apps, etc. Nonetheless, the boost that digital health has received is not enough to address the critical barriers to digital adoption. As a result, the unprecedented drive for digitalization will slow down. In this delight, we’ve forgotten about low digital skills, lacking data interoperability, conservative legislation not keeping up with technological changes, obsolete and carefully updated reimbursement policies, growing cyber threats. And that culture eats strategies and technologies for breakfast.
only a small portion of users actually used the apps for a long period of time
Let's analyse some numbers to counterbalance the industry-generated reports. According to the latest Eurostat data, only 11% of people living in Europe have access to online health records. Following the Annual European e-Health Survey, an average health care facility in Europe spends only 2.9-3.9% of its total annual budget on investments in digital infrastructure. Confirmed data breaches in health care increased by 58% in 2020, and hospitals are responsible for 30% of all major data breaches. By the end of 2020, security breaches cost companies from the healthcare sector 6 billion dollars. It would be difficult to find any spectacular successes in the field of data interoperability, whereas the implementation of SNOMED or other similar medical data sharing standards is moving forward at a snail’s pace. While some hospitals achieved the highest level of digital maturity and have access to cutting-edge technologies, others cannot even afford new computers for their doctors. BCG’s Provider Digital Benchmark survey that assessed the digital maturity of 24 European providers in ten countries found that all health care organizations globally scored 52 out of 100, US health care providers scored 48, and European providers scored 44.  The report concludes that European providers “are not paying enough attention to human behaviours, capabilities, and ways of working.” Or let’s check the study Objective User Engagement With Mental Health Apps: Systematic Search and Panel-Based Usage Analysis published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. For the 93 mental health apps studied, the median of app 30-day retention rate was 3.3%.  Conclusion: “Although the number of app installs and daily active minutes of use may seem high, only a small portion of users actually used the apps for a long period of time.” This is what an iceberg looks like under the surface of the water. These barriers can turn the most innovative technologies into useless devices and the billions of dollars invested in medtech into billions in losses. Weather is not climate. An increase in the number of mobile health apps downloads and digital health funding don’t represent a digital transformation in healthcare.