Forget Population Health, Start with Individuals (mHealthNews masters session)

By Michelle Snyder

Population health management has become one of the biggest buzz words of 2015 – but what does it really mean?

I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on why the term “population health management” is a misnomer, why you should care if my mom uses FitBit, and more during a candid mHealthNews masters Q&A session.

Here are the session highlights:

Q. What's the one promise of mHealth that will drive the most adoption over the coming year?  

A. Personalization. I've always thought the term "population health management" was something of a misnomer - a population is made up of individuals, and you need to understand how to influence each individual's actions and behaviors on a personal level before you have the chance to influence the health "of a population."

This can now be achieved through technology. While it will be more of a continual vs. sudden shift, we will begin to have the ability to leverage technology to better understand people as individuals - in terms of understanding their risks, motivations, receptivity, preferences, etc. This will help the industry move quickly toward driving engagement, changing behavior and improving outcomes.

Q. What mHealth technology will become ubiquitous in the next 5 years? Why? 

A. I really see the next few years as the time where we take an already ubiquitous technology – the smartphone – to new levels in the healthcare industry. It's the one indispensable tool that will only continue to increase in use and popularity among everyone – patients, healthcare consumers and clinicians. 

Q. What's the most cutting-edge application you're seeing now? What other innovations might we see in the near future?  

A. We're still on the front end of the cognitive computing revolution, but I think learning technologies, such as IBM Watson, which get smarter over time as they learn more about you, and these technologies will have massive implications for the healthcare industry.

The healthcare industry's view of consumers and patients has been very retrospective so far – based on lagging information, such as claims and clinical encounter data. The more that the industry can begin to use consumer data that already exists from outside the healthcare system and couple it with cognitive computing technologies that continually learn about the individual, the greater success we will have in engaging individuals.

Q. What mHealth tool or trend will likely die out or fail?

A. I don't think standalone fitness tracking devices will outright fail, but they are dependent on the end user remembering to charge, wear or sync. I see them becoming less relevant as sensors get incorporated into the tools, technologies and clothing that we already use in everyday life.

Q. What mHealth tool or trend has surprised you the most, either with its success or its failure?

A. Ironically, my answer to the "die out" question – standalone fitness tracking devices – is also one of the areas where I have been most surprised. Living in Silicon Valley, it's easy to get caught up in the illusion that everyone cares deeply about understanding their data and how it can help them improve their health. I've been surprised at how companies like FitBit have broken into the mass market. It really hit me when I visited my mother in Wisconsin – she was wearing a FitBit and talking about how she walks more than Margie on the corner and Gail across the street.

Q. What's your biggest fear about mHealth?

A. Two things jump out at me for very different reasons. First, the elephant in the room – our reimbursement system. There is so much talk about the movement from a volume- to value-based system, but the reality is that the vast majority of reimbursement today is still built around a FFS model. Second, as someone who has been on both the investor and early stage company sides of the fence, there is a lot of money flowing into healthcare IT right now. It's exciting to see how funding has almost tripled over the last few years, especially after some of the lean years in the mid-2000s. However, I have been seeing more and more companies who get funding that may not be truly solving a problem or who don't really have a viable business model. And to the degree that we start seeing a flood of companies not able to get follow-on funding, it can have an impact on the perception of the entire industry and the valuations of the good companies out there.

Q. Who's going to push mHealth "to the next level" – consumers, providers or some other party?

A. I don't think there will be one driving force. The beauty of what is going on in the mHealth space is that we're seeing a perfect storm of factors related to policy, technology (mobile, social, cloud) and macro trends (healthcare costs, obesity) that are converging to drive change. That said, I continue to be very interested in what is happening with retailers such as Walgreens, CVS and others. As retailers make a play to own a bigger piece of the healthcare pie, we will see many of them leveraging mHealth technologies to build a new kind of healthcare experience outside of traditional healthcare settings. Similarly, as consumers pay more out of pocket for their care, they are going to expect to have more consumer-friendly experiences with the healthcare system and gravitate toward organizations (whether they be traditional healthcare providers or new entrants) that provide them with more convenient, accessible, lower-cost experiences.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Welltok's CaféWell Health Optimization Platform organizes the growing spectrum of health improvement programs and allocates incentive dollars for population health managers, including health plans, at-risk providers, government agencies and large employers. The consumer enterprise platform leverages advanced analytics and cognitive technologies to understand consumers, predict health behaviors and create personalized, adaptive plans for individuals. After having spent a good part of my career building one of the first and most successful mHealth companies for clinicians (Epocrates), it's been really exciting to shift focus and think about healthcare from the consumer perspective and how the industry can really help consumers (not just patients) optimize their health.

Original article appeared in mHealthNews in August 2015.