3 critical fixes for the US healthcare system

Running a start-up in healthcare for the past five years has taught me a lot about people, processes and technology. But perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned has been about navigating complex existing systems. Namely, the US healthcare system.

Now, I’m a data scientist by training and by trade. And we’re very pragmatic people. We identify problems, peel back the layers of complexity to look for a root cause, and develop a systematic way of addressing the problem to build a better solution for the future.

In healthcare, however, those layers are much more intricate and surprisingly few people can agree on what the “problem” actually is. Much less the solution.

As our technology at Ginger.io starts its shift from disruption to integration, now is a good time to share some key learnings from the epic adventure that is building innovation into healthcare-delivery settings. Here are my recommendations to the global healthcare community.

  1. Embrace technology

We are fortunate enough to live in a time of great technological advancement. This has come in the form of machine learning, 3D printing, predictive analytics, advanced optics, impossibly small sensors and all-around computational power. But when it comes to healthcare, technology has clearly surpassed the ability of research to keep pace.

Hospitals and doctors are adopting new technologies as they become clinically and commercially viable, but the convoluted and burdensome systemic pressures such as competing incentives, byzantine payment models and legal frameworks have stymied the pace of innovation. This not only impacts time to market for new technologies but can be a major deterrent to new entrepreneurs. A barrier to entry, if you will, in an industry that is arguably the most worthy of innovation and human ingenuity – saving lives.

We have the tools to create a much healthier global population, but we’re missing clear opportunities to leverage technological solutions in response to global health threats such as malaria, heart disease, and depression. The global community must invest in helping entrepreneurs tackle these difficult problems and navigate the complicated structures currently in place.

  1. Give patients the tools to self-manage

We’re now living in an era defined by self-service. People prefer ATMs and smartphones to banks, online shopping to brick-and-mortar stores, Wikipedia to libraries. When younger generations get sick today, they are more likely to visit WebMD.com or perform a quick Google search to understand their symptoms long before they reach the doors of a doctor’s office. This represents a huge shift and a serious opportunity for patients and providers of healthcare alike.

Research from Accenture shows that more than 90% of patients want to self-manage their healthcare through technology. This includes managing their data and healthcare records of course, but it also extends to managing chronic and acute health conditions. In fact, it is estimated that 1.7 billion people will have downloaded health apps by 2017, adding up to an impressive $26 billion global industry.

For patients, the value is clear. Credible information can empower those who hold it to feel more confident in managing their condition and offer some guidance as to when and how to engage with the healthcare system – improving access to healthcare services in the process.

These activated and engaged patients also benefit the providers of healthcare. When patients are empowered to self-manage their condition, we see a number of beneficial ripple effects: strain on the system is decreased; emergency departments no longer act as triage units for people in stable condition; and it allows doctors to be doctors instead of hospital administrators or reimbursement accountants.

  1. Accept that mental health matters

At some point in modern history, the healthcare community decided to separate the treatment of mental health from the treatment of physical health. Fortunately, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way and we’re coming to realize what the ancients knew long ago – the mind-body connection is real and symbiotic.

Addressing mental health is crucial for helping patients to manage their physical health, especially when it comes to chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease which can have a co-morbid depression rate of up to 60%. The existence of depression in combination with chronic diseases is shown to dramatically reduce the quality of health outcomes while also driving up costs of treatment by an average of $505 per patient a month.

But it’s not only chronic diseases. It is estimated that more than 70% of all primary care visits stem from a psychological issue. Primary care is often referred to as “the front lines of healthcare” where the average primary care provider will see the full spectrum of mental health conditions (from depression and anxiety, to substance abuse, to psychiatric disorders) in just one week.

Ask anyone to think about a time when they were sad or angry or anxious. Ask them how those feelings manifested physically. You’ll get an immediate response about heart rate, body temperature, or pain in a very real sense. Any perceived separation between mental and physical health by healthcare providers is negligent at best and downright dangerous at its worst.

As a global society, we have enough tools to “fix” many aspects of healthcare today. The practice of medicine will always be an evolving science as the human body is an infinitely complicated and beautiful system. But we can take real steps to improving the standard of care today. To do so, we must act with a higher degree of urgency in bringing new products and solutions to market, and we must dedicate real resources to applying advanced technologies to the life sciences.

It’s just a matter of having the will to stand up to an entrenched system and shout: “There is a better way!”

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Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here

Author: Anmol Madan is Co-founder and CEO of Ginger.io, a leading digital mental health management offering and a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. 

Image: Technician Matthew Smith loads a robotic DNA sample automation machine at a Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. laboratory at the biotechnology company’s headquarters in Tarrytown, New York March 24, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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