S2 #8: What You Need To Know About The Future Of Digital Health With Bryan Messersmith

Bryan Messersmith, host of The Digital Healthcare Podcast, is an avid learner of all things health tech. On the podcast, he interviews thought leaders and industry leaders to understand what’s really going on in digital health.

Because of the wide range of people Bryan converses with, he’s uniquely situation to give us a deeper understanding of where health care is headed, how to stay connected to the larger purpose, and why we need to be in the industry in the first place.

Backstory

Bryan’s journey into health care began nearly eight years ago. When he graduated from college, he knew he had an interest in the tech industry, but other than that, he wasn’t sure what he loved. In fact, the first five years out of college were one of discovery - both of what he loved and what he didn’t.

Right out of college, he landed a job with the federal government in consulting, along the way learning a lot about what he didn’t like. Then he joined a large pharmaceutical company (mostly because of the well-known brand name).

About six months into this job, however, he found himself working closely with oncology drugs for stomach cancer. This struck a chord with him. When he was in high school, his grandmother, who he had a great relationship with, passed away from stomach cancer. And suddenly, he realized that health care is where he fits.

However, Bryan quickly discovered that he had a steep learning curve if he was going to follow his passion. To make matters more complicated, his job wasn’t located in Silicon Valley or Boston where digital health innovations are the norm. So he came up with his own organic approach to climb this new learning curve.

He started reaching out to people on LinkedIn who seemed to know a lot about digital health. Then he’d set up a phone call to ask questions and pick their brains. After about 5-6 of these chats, he realized that the insight they were giving him needed to be shared with others, leading him to start recording the conversations. Thus began The Digital Healthcare Podcast.

Bryan Messersmith

What’s trending in digital health?

Because Bryan has talked with most of the movers and shakers in digital health, he has a good handle on its history and what’s changing in the near future.

According to him, almost everyone can at least empathize with the frustrations in health care. At some point or another, we all will encounter them whether through family members’ or our own medical needs. For Bryan, this has motivated him to make health care better.

While it’s evident that change needs to happen, the tricky thing is HOW to bring about change. Sure, health care facilities need to be able to collaborate with others, but the reality is that the system is set up with major silos, preventing coordinated care.

The problem is that since each of these silos is focused on one specific segment of health care, they end up concentrating on their own considerations and avoid collaboration with others. In pharma, for instance, Bryan’s company has to work with the FDA to get approval for drugs, but other than that, they don’t collaborate. According to Bryan, how to cut through this tunnel vision caused by silos is the million dollar question.

Three overriding difficulties within health care

There are three tensions Bryan’s observed as he’s talked with health tech thought leaders.

Well-established versus new companies

In the medical industry there are two extremes - old and new. Bryan compared these segments in health care to TESLA and Ford. TESLA came in and completely redesigned the way you build cars. This stands in stark contrast to Ford or Chevy who take old processes, practices, deep expertise and reshape them in order to use modern technology.

The same is happening in health care. There are the well-established players trying to reshape the old to merge with new technology, and then there are startups who are trying to build new processes from the ground up. The difficulty for new models, however, is that survival requires them to collaborate with older, more traditional models.

In other words, there’s not a lot of room for complete disruption within health care. That’s why a lot of startups have to work around existing systems, building bridges between the old and the new. The good news is that even the smallest revisions can have big returns in the long run.

Health tech lag

As a whole health care lags behind many industries when it comes to new technology. For instance, while other industries are making significant advances in areas such as AI or machine learning, many health systems have 10 year old technology that simply can’t handle these advances.

Bryan shared that many times he’s asked interviewees on his podcast how AI is going to change health care. And his guests point out that we can’t go from the current state of technology in health care straight to AI. In reality, we’re about ten steps away from being able to use machine learning

This means that health systems need to focus on less exciting updates such as modernizing their tech architecture. And while these changes aren’t the most sexy advancements, they do change the situation so medical establishments can eventually implement newer technology.

The human element behind change

Underlying all these other difficulties is this - change is hard. Plus, the human element within health care means that digital health often has to move slower.

Sure, it’d be nice to change everything overnight. But from patients to clinicians, health care is a very human focused industry. So even though change is needed, it always has to be held in balance with the needs of all the people involved.

Is patient centric health a marketing ploy?

According to Bryan patient-centered health care does affect both the patient experience as well as marketing strategy. Since health care has never been designed to be a pleasurable experience, he thinks this emphasis is a good change.

In his view, patient-centered jargon is backed by real, life changing advancements for the patient experience. The reason for this is because many people join the health care industry because of deeply personal experiences. That’s why the patient experience is often the underlying drive for many involved health care.

What makes patient-centered care tough, however, is that startups have to have a viable business, too. In other words, to keep helping patients, they have to stay in the black. Without steady revenue, these businesses won’t be able to help the people they desperately want to help.

Pitfalls in digital health

In general, Bryan has seen how difficult it can be to affect change if everyone is focused on their own silos. If you want to innovate within digital health, you really need to be looking around and trying to understand the medical industry as a whole (not just your own slice of the health care pie).

Plus, as everyone starts understanding other aspects of medical care, this opens up new possibilities and perspectives that can move digital health forward faster than ever before.

Bryan compared all the silos in health care to a high school dance. Two years ago everyone was standing around, awkwardly trying to figure out how the whole night was going to go down. Now there are at least a few people on the dance floor. In three to five years, though, hopefully everyone will be dancing.

How can digital health help to break down silos?

Even within IDNs, silos struggle to communicate and understand each other whether that’s C-level talking to the clinical level or clinicians to other specialists. According to Bryan, many of these communication barriers naturally crumble as companies update their architecture.

The reason he believes this makes a big difference is because technology built ten or more years ago wasn’t built to facilitate conversations and data sharing. However, once the architecture is updated, interoperability, running analytics, and consolidating data becomes feasible.

How to make sure health tech solutions deliver

Recently, I was talking with clinicians who updated their EHR over a year ago, and all of them were frustrated because it consistently made their lives harder, not easier. Bryan said this is a common problem for any tech company - becoming so focused on product features that they lose sight of the end goal.

It all goes back to the design process. Are digital health companies designing these solutions with a primary focus on the end user? Are you adding diversity and inclusion in the design process? For instance, what if your product will be used by multi-generational doctors? Since there are so many perspectives to capture, your design team needs to be robust and diverse.

Must-read book

Bryan’s all-time favorite book is When Breath Becomes Air. The author, Paul Kalanithi, is a brain surgeon working on his doctorate when he discovers he has cancer. That’s when he decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of writing a book.

Throughout his narrative, he shares what it’s like to help patients whose lives were turned upside down by brain surgery. Then his focus shifts as he prepares for his own passing. What Bryan took away from this book is that all of us in health tech have such purpose to our work. Our investment in digital health affects people in a powerful way everyday.

Want to connect with Bryan? Find him here:

The Digital Healthcare Podcast

LinkedIn: Bryan Messersmith

Twitter: @bmess5

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