Healthcare’s Booms and Busts of 2018
Another amazing year has come and gone and excitement for the last year of the 21st century’s second decade is upon us. There is much to be excited about heading into 2019. As we develop a more symbiotic relationship with our technology, it’s hard not to wonder what the future holds in this regard, especially in regard to healthcare technology. Before we can look ahead, we’d like to take a look back at the year that was. What follows is a look at some of most exciting developments, and some of the best healthcare technology booms, as well as its biggest bruises.
Patient care advancements
First, at the point of patient care, tremendous advancements were gained. For example, the human genes responsible for cancer metastasizaton were discovered. According to researchers at the University of Alberta, 11 genes are responsible for cancer’s spread. Inhibiting these gene might make it possible to prevent more than 99.5 percent of metastasis.
Additionally, a DNA test might predict the likelihood that a patient may experience drug-based side effects. Researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University developed a DNA test for patients taking thiopurine drugs, which suppress abnormal immune system activities. The test is simple and particularly useful for Asian populations since people from that group tend to have more severe side effects of these medications than Caucasians, even when taking smaller doses.
Hepatitis B, an easily spread and common virus that attacks the liver function, has traditionally been expensive to diagnose – costing as much as $500 per test, especially prohibitive for people in developing nations. A new $20 test has been developed that takes two blood-based screenings, providing people with an accurate diagnoses for the disease. This new method, called TREAT-B, identifies patients who need treatment for Hepatitis B with 85 percent accuracy.
Drug-induced changes to an individual’s brain chemistry caused by substances may make it difficult for individuals to stop taking certain drugs. A newly developed intervention — called a serotonin 2C receptor therapeutic — restores the weakened signals in the brain drug use causes. Thus, people might face fewer drug-related desires, meaning addiction recovery may be better. For mice, it works.
Hearing loss sufferers heard some positive news in 2018. The possibility now exists that medication might treat some forms of hearing loss. One company is working on drugs that might benefit people with various types of hearing loss. It has already noticed improvements related to hearing loss caused by medication when testing the drugs in mice.
Finally, insulin injections for Type 1 diabetes may be on the way out. Pills that help patients meet their insulin regulation needs may be here. Scientists developed an insulin pill that resists the harsh acids in a person’s gut and delivers the medicine to the small intestine for adequate absorption. The research team has only tested the product on animals but hopes to get approval for clinical trials soon. We’ll soon see.
Healthcare technology booms
While patients have many advancements to celebrate from 2018, so does the health IT sector. Like most tech sectors, healthcare saw its share of wins this year. Here are some of the most impressive.
The tried and tested electronic health record wasn’t forgotten in 2018. In fact, it had a stellar year. EHRs, specifically the web-based variety, offer various advantages, like increased efficiency and better quality of care. The most competitive EHR companies in the marketplace regularly release offerings that cater to hospitals and doctors offices’ that need quick, secure and reliable access to patient records. A report published in June 2018 indicates that by 2025, the overall electronic health records market will be worth more than $38 billion. That’s not only big business, but a big deal for a somewhat beleaguered technology.
While the EHR story has been well covered for the better part of the decade, there’s some other major health tech news that should be noted, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. Behemouth brand, Apple, is vesting in healthcare. The iPhone-maker enabled patients at select hospitals to store their EHRs on their smartphones via the Apple Health Records feature. Hundreds of hospitals now partake in the program. In other health-related Apple headlines, the company said it planned to launch a group of primary health clinics for its own employees and their families in 2018, called AC Wellness.
Not to be outdone, Amazon pushed its way into the space, too. Its entry became clear when it announced a new healthcare company with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. The online retailer has reportedly considered selling medical devices and over-the-counter healthcare products on its website. Amazon has also reportedly built a team within its Alexa division to explore ways to make the virtual assistant, which is powered by artificial intelligence, more useful in healthcare. One of Amazon’s latest healthcare efforts occurred in June, with the company’s acquisition of online pharmacy startup PillPack for about $1 billion.
Outside of company specific boom news, several tech concepts are rocking healthcare. Some having the greatest impact are artificial intelligence, IoT and blockchain. Patient engagement is still getting much, love, too.
AI is still in its infancy, but it promise for patients is there. AI offers a number of advantages over traditional analytics and clinical decision-making techniques. For example, learning algorithms can become more precise and accurate as they interact with training data, allowing humans to gain unprecedented insights into diagnostics, care processes, treatment variability and patient outcomes. Providers may also be able to better define the aggressiveness of cancers and target treatments more appropriately. And, AI is helping to enable “virtual biopsies” and advance the innovative field of radiomics, which focuses on harnessing image-based algorithms to characterize the phenotypes and genetic properties of tumors. AI imaging tools can screen chest x-rays for signs of tuberculosis, often achieving a level of accuracy comparable to humans. This capability could be deployed through an app available to providers in low-resource areas, reducing the need for a trained diagnostic radiologist on site. Just one more application for the technology, of course.
Internet of (medical/healthcare) Things refers to a connected infrastructure of medical devicesand software applications that can communicate with various healthcare IT systems. As an example, someone who wears a FitBit to track his or her steps; that step count can be tabulated on an iPhone via Bluetooth technology then that data can be shared with a physician to provide feedback via Wi-Fi connection and automated reporting data. It also can send that data to family and caregivers. The benefits of introducing healthcare-based IoT are plenty and more benefits will be discovered, but there are some obvious one to be sure: Objective reporting; remote monitoring; local activity recording; automation; precision medicine; and adaptability.
Blockchain is a technology that can securely exchange information with others. Blockchain is, essentially, an independent, transparent and permanent database co-existing in multiple locations and shared by a community. In healthcare, this might mean a decentralized record system using blockchain independent of EHRs controlling the data. But there’s a great deal of foundational work required here, and regulatory support. While the technology has promise and 2018 brought it into many healthcare conversations, blockchain is something we’ll likely be talking about at the end of 2019 as having a healthcare application, but what that is exactly will probably still need to be determined at that time.
Driving the growth in patient engagement realities is an aging population, an increased burden of chronic diseases for sufferers and the push to get patients to assume more responsibility for managing their care. This requires new solutions and passion to bring about the solutions needed to manage the population’s increasing individual patient need. While patient engagement tools can enhance communication and help to improve outcomes while reducing costs, barriers such as patient data security and lack of interoperability persist, and could prevent the market from reaching its full potential. Also, as value-based care continues to emerge, meting the goals of such means patients must be engaged. This, perhaps more than any other, may have been the most talked about topic in 2018, but expect a ton more about this in years to come.
Healthcare technology busts
While there’s much to be excited about in healthcare technology, there were quite a few boondoggles. Those leading these efforts probably want 2019 to come as quickly. What are some of the biggest busts and darkest bruises from the year? Let’s take a quick look.
Perhaps the biggest, most disappointing story even, from 2018 might be the Theranos debacle. The once darling startup unicorn that had a valuation of more than $9 billion disintegrated once regulators discovered its blood testing technology was built on a house of lies and a misinformation campaign by its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Founded in 2003 by then teenage Stanford dropout Holmes, Theranos grew into a $9 billion firm based on its promise of a blood test requiring only a finger prick, rather than a vial of blood. It died quickly and ferociously in 2018.
Though the company would likely deny any issues here, IBM laid off an undisclosed number of employees from its Watson Health division — including employees from three acquired companies, Explorys, Phytel and Truven Health Analytics — just before the Memorial Day holiday. The former employees alleged IBM leadership failed to foresee the challenges of aggregating data from hospitals, and Watson Health couldn’t meet the promised deadlines on a number of client projects. The employees said overlapping divisions and mismanagement of projects fostered internal competition. Shortly after the layoffs, IBM Watson Health leadership reportedly told employees it plans to refocus its business strategy, which includes cutting down some of its work with hospital clients.
In June, GE admitted defeat with its healthcare unit and revealed plans to spin it off into a standalone enterprise. GE henceforth will focus on aviation, power and renewable energy. However, the planned spinoff was up in the air as late as October after news that John Flannery was removed as chairman and CEO of the industrial conglomerate, according to one industry analyst. Jim Corridore, a research equity analyst at CFRA, said that GE’s incoming leader, former Danaher CEO Lawrence Culp, could decide that the multibillion-dollar health division would be better off staying within the company. GE Healthcare, a dominant player in hospital and lab equipment, generates about $19 billion in revenue and created $3.4 billion in profit in 2017. It accounted for 15.8 percent of the conglomerate’s total sales, and 43.2 percent of its operating profit in 2017. Either way, perception being reality, there’s a lot going on here that makes things look unstable.
Athenahealth co-founder Jonathan Bush resigned as president, CEO and member of the company’s board in June. This led to an unsolicited all-cash offer made by investment management firm Elliott Management to purchase athenahealth for nearly $7 billion. In actuality, athenahealth will be acquired for $5.7 billion by Veritas Capital and an Elliott subsidiary. The company will be combined with Veritas-owned Virence Health, but will continue operating under the athenahealth name and keep its Watertown, Massachusetts, headquarters. Virence CEO Bob Segert will lead it.
In 2018 HHS’ Office for Civil Rights hit the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for two data breaches that occurred in 2012 and 2013, fining it $4,348,000 in civil penalties for HIPAA violations related to its encryption policies. Allscripts, too, is facing repercussions after a January ransomware attack that cut off numerous clients’ access to their professional EHR’s services and electronic prescribing of controlled substances systems. These incidents are only the tip of a huge year in breach news, of course. Threats continued this year and cybercriminals got more creative. There is so much news about healthcare data breaches that Healthcare IT News has even developed an entire page on its site to tracking the biggest breaches. They are a copious amount of headlines.
The bad doesn’t define the year, though. We’ve seen much good, particularly for patients and patient engagement. Advancements are encouraging even as the year’s failures might sting. Advancements bring hope for all, and new developments and technology rev our passion for creating new solutions. Sometimes failure is simply part of the process. Without big failure there would be no big success, both of which we saw in 2018 and what 2019 promises to deliver.