Technological change disrupts the status quo by reducing limitations on task completion and increasing the timeliness of information flow. Consider the evolution of early “brick” mobile telephones—novel for the early 1990s but limited to voice calls—to the multifunctioning device now in your pocket. The same can also be seen in healthcare. Emerging healthcare technologies of similar significance can increase patient access to care and may also reduce the cost of care.
As the healthcare system shifts to value-based care models centered around prevention-oriented services and quality of care, new and emerging healthcare technologies must deliver the efficiencies providers need to concentrate on value rather than volume.
The healthcare technologies that endure time will meet the expectations of multiple parties, including payers, providers, and patients.
Five emerging healthcare technologies
We’ve selected five emerging healthcare technologies that providers and payers should monitor while weighing digital health capabilities and delivery channels for serving patients and members.
- Connected health devices
- Digital therapeutics
- Artificial intelligence
- Virtual reality
How these emerging healthcare technologies will evolve in 2022
1. Connected health devices will be reexamined for equity concerns
Connected health devices are called many names: wearables, remote patient monitoring, smart medical devices. Whatever we call them, connected health devices are typically sensors or monitors that patients wear or periodically connect to outside of a formal healthcare setting. These devices are connected to the internet and cloud services to collect and transmit health data about the patient to their providers.
Connected health devices contribute to the success of patient-centered care by improving the ability to care for people in their homes, where they are more comfortable, while reducing the number of in-office visits that may be difficult for some patients to coordinate. Smart devices also foster more efficient value-based care by monitoring patient conditions, allowing for earlier detection of changes and trends. The availability of these data can inform clinical decision-making resulting in better treatment options for the patient.
The emerging healthcare technology capabilities in wearables can promote patient engagement among users by giving patients access to real-time insights into their own health. This information transparency can motivate some patients.
Though connected health devices offer numerous benefits, these benefits are not accessible to all and may, in some ways, perpetuate or even deepen existing inequities in healthcare. For example:
- Smart devices depend on an internet connection. Those without reliable or broadband internet access are at a disadvantage.
- The devices’ affordability may present a financial barrier to some patients.
Discussions in 2022 about connected health devices will include ways emerging healthcare technologies can make proven devices and connectivity more widely accessible in the interest of health equity.
2. The regulatory processes for digital therapeutics will gain clarity
Digital therapeutics (DTx) are a subset of digital health that use software to deliver evidence-based interventions to patients. DTx aim to prevent, manage, or treat behavior-modifiable conditions such as diabetes, overweight and obesity, mental health conditions, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The regulatory pathway for approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for traditional medical devices is well established. DTx, by contrast, has no similar established pathway or process for formal acceptance. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the process of creating more definition, categorization, and regulation around these emerging healthcare technologies.
As the DTx regulation takes form, it will lead to
- An increase in demand for third parties to independently evaluate the effectiveness of DTx.
- Discussion about whether to tie pricing to the cost of the tool or its impact on patient health.
DTx developers will have to demonstrate that their products and software do no harm and offer some measure of cost-effectiveness. As payers and providers decide whether to recommend DTx tools to patients, independent third parties will become valuable partners in assessing the actual impact to support these decisions.
Emerging healthcare technologies and the commercialization of DTx products
The commercialization of DTx products remains unclear. Traditional payer reimbursement pathways may not reflect the full value of DTx, leaving DTx companies to choose between conforming to the mold established for pharmaceuticals and non-software medical devices or assuming a direct-to-consumer channel.
As more DTx companies emerge and compelling value stories are established, the industry may evolve to one or more durable payment models. Payers will closely examine the impact of DTx software against its cost and consider patient experience factors to make the best decisions possible, creating a market for evidence generation surrounding health tech devices.
3. Artificial intelligence will play an increasing role in clinical decision-making
Artificial intelligence (AI) involves training machines to behave consistent with humans, involving intentionality, intelligence, and adaptability. In 2022, AI will play a huge role in the development of emerging healthcare technologies in rapidly evolving areas like oncology.
One promising application uses AI to assist in diagnosis by analyzing images of tissue scans. At Tulane University, researchers built an image processing program that detected colorectal cancer with a higher accuracy rate than pathologists.
Incorporating AI into the diagnosis process will enable physicians to make better treatment decisions. Providers in value-based care models will benefit from AI assistance in diagnosing patients faster and with fewer tests. This may contribute to a better patient experience and lower cost of care.
4. Telehealth payment models will be evaluated for a post-pandemic future
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) opted to offer the same level of payment for virtual or telephone visits as for in-person ones. Commercial payers followed suit. In 2022, CMS will decide whether to keep this policy moving forward, and their decision will certainly influence whether other payers continue to cover telehealth at parity. However, it’s not as simple as just following CMS’s lead.
Payers also need to understand their member populations and examine how their outcomes from telehealth compare with outcomes from in-person office visits. Depending on their findings, payers will be looking for ways to incentivize the appropriate use of telehealth and address the multiple health equity issues currently surrounding telehealth. These issues include language barriers, lack of private space in which to conduct the visit, and lack of video sharing technology, to name a few. Nevertheless, with proper investments and incentives to encourage adoption by underserved communities, telehealth may have the potential to improve access to care over time.
As more payers shift to value-based care models in 2022 and beyond, these questions will become less relevant. In a value-based payment system, providers will have the flexibility to provide telehealth to promote their patients’ optimal health, as it best suits each patient.
5. Virtual reality will be rolled out to more parts of the healthcare industry
In a virtual reality (VR) experience, people wear a headset to experience a computer-simulated environment. Medical education has long used VR to train doctors and nurses; looking ahead, virtual reality applications include chronic pain management and mental health therapy, as well as treatment of addiction.
One Cedars-Sinai study focused on a VR-enabled, non-drug approach to managing patient lower back pain. The thesis is that VR may help train patient attention to focus on experiences beyond the pain, using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
Mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga can help many people relieve stress, combat anxiety, and achieve a more relaxed mental state. VR can help people achieve meditative abilities faster than traditional practices in some cases. VR digital therapeutic tools are also being used to facilitate the treatment of depression, based on principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, by placing patients in immersive experiences.
These are a few areas in which emerging or developing healthcare technologies shape healthcare delivery models.