Will Digital Therapeutics Revolutionize Healthcare?

Apps, sensors and monitoring technologies are cutting costs and improving patient care.

The role virtual reality may come to play in mental health treatments has recently been a topic of discussion. This development may come as a surprise to many given that, despite major technological advances in recent years, VR is still mostly seen as a mere gaming technology. But therapeutic use of VR is part of a much larger trend in which digital tech could increasingly be used to augment—and in some cases even replace—established medical practices.

Apps Not Pills

There’s not quite an app for everything—yet. Many areas of life remain open for colonization by the application economy. The concept of digital therapeutics is a good case in point. Top Silicon Valley venture capitalist firms like Andreessen Horowitz are betting that these so-called “digiceuticals” are going to be huge and may even represent a new era in medicine. 

The key concept behind digital therapeutics is that software can be just as effective as drugs in treating certain conditions—and be delivered at much less expense and without any serious side effects. This may involve a relatively simple mobile app that helps patients manage diabetes or sleep disorders. Or it may involve additional hardware, as with the sensors that Propeller Health has designed for asthma inhalers. 

The Connected Clinic

If the conversation has moved onto connected devices and sensors, then clearly it has entered Internet of Things territory. So far, most coverage of healthcare IoT has centered on the frankly terrifying cyber breaches that some facilities have experienced. Obviously, the stakes are high when it comes to cybersecurity in healthcare, which raises the question: Why are hospitals and clinics willing to commit to increasing levels of connectivity?

The answer is that connected technologies are offering ever-greater rewards in terms of patient care. With new monitoring technologies, doctors are starting to get an uninterrupted view into their patients’ medical state long after they leave the office. These technologies include Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure cuffs and weight scales, which can drive data directly into patients’ existing medical records.

Security concerns remain and—in these data-driven use cases—they are often joined by privacy concerns. But the potential these technologies have for saving lives is nothing to be sniffed at. From the perspective of physicians, there are incredible new opportunities to improve the quality of care and to save lives. But the potential will only be realized if tech companies are able to provide the kind of functionality physicians really need.

It will be interesting to see how effectively the medical profession and tech community work together over the coming years to make the promise of these emerging technologies a reality. A lot will depend on tech’s ability to act fast and iterate constantly to provide end users with the smoothest, most relevant experience and—of course—ensure that sensitive IT systems and patient data remain secure and private.

Sam Macklin
By Sam Macklin | April 18, 2017