For patients, providers, and communities, tech's biggest healthcare opportunity is still improving communication

By Jonah Comstock
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Even as medical technology enables some amazing things, the most important breakthroughs in public health could still come from simple technologies that can expand access to care and improve communications, according to a panel of providers and technologists that took the stage with Former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Foundation Health Matters Summit earlier this week.

Assembled speakers included Doximity Co-Founder Dr. Nate Gross in his capacity of Rock Health co-founder; Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy; Dr. Donald K. Warne, director of the Master of Public Health Program at North Dakota State University; IBM Chief Health Officer Dr. Kyu Rhee; and inventor Anya Pogharian, who developed a faster, lower-cost dialysis machine at the age of 17.

One theme that emerged from most of the speakers was that even with the vast potential of the internet and mobile devices to connect people and systems, simple gaps in communication still lead to big health problems.

“There are simple technologies that would go a long way toward improving quality of life,” said Warne. “For example, if someone is eligible for Medicaid they’re probably eligible for certain social programs, or housing programs, or other assistance programs. Why do we pretend [those] people don’t have smartphones? Why do we pretend people don’t know how to use an iPad? Why don’t we have a simple technology to enroll people in everything their eligible for? Why do we make people with limited transportation drive 75 miles to a county office? To me that would be an incredibly simple technology: a universal services enrollment platform. That alone would be a low-hanging fruit that would do a world of good.”

Murthy said that after traveling the country as Surgeon General, he encountered many communities that could learn from each other if better communication could be facilitated. For instance, Ohio is in the bottom tier on infant mortality, and their public officials wanted to hear from him what states in the top tier were doing.

“Even in this age where we feel hyperconnected, communities are struggling to figure out common problems,” he said.

Similarly, Rock Health's Gross pointed out that miscommunication still leads to a lot of preventable errors in hospitals.

“If miscommunication were considered a cause of death it would be the fifth leading cause of death in hospitals,” he said. “And for every single thing, there’s a meaningful way we can interact with each other, through technology, to bring about change.”

Gross also cautioned against betting on startups that want to use tech for tech’s sake. He said that Augmedix, for example, is the only Google Glass startup Rock Health works with because Augmedix’s goal is to use Glass to get doctors away from their existing technology and make them more present with their patients.

IBM’s Rhee spoke about the need to use technology to connect physicians to the medical insights and answers that are already out there. 

“It’s so challenging, it’s humanly impossible for any person to know all of that data as the medical literature doubles every five years and the medical data doubles every 73 days,” he said. “So there’s an extraordinary amount of potential to turn big data into big insights.”

That’s something IBM is working on with Watson, but also, as Clinton pointed out, is addressable with much lower-tech approaches. He talked about Geisinger Health ACO’s approach to managing medical information.

“They have a center that every single day reviews this mountain of information coming out,” the former US president said. “For each condition they can even imagine treating, every single doctor has a massive book with the latest, best practices. Their theory is to take the science first and then the art. Everyone agrees to try the best known practice first. It’s been stunningly successful.”