As costs of healthcare continue to rise, innovators continue to ask how technology can play a role in improving people’s lives. This year’s Austin Startup Week featured a Health Tech Track sponsored by Health Tech Austin and focused on several different health topics. “Your Health is Your Wealth” zeroed in on not only how health tech can lead to a healthier population, but also the issues and ethics around selling health data. Here are some of the main insights we gained from the event.
Panel moderator Mary Ann Roser, long-time medical writer for the Austin-American Statesman and now founder of Roser Prose, began the discussion by citing statistics on how much being unhealthy can cost.
Medical care for a stroke can cost you $23,000
Speaker Bryan Menell is the CEO of Verimos: a company with a mission to build the world’s largest repository of wellness data available to everyone. Members voluntarily sign up to have their health data collected by different apps and smart devices, and then sold. A user’s health data is represented by a token securely stored on the cloud. As the demand for this data grows, the token gains value. In short, people are paid for companies to have access to data on their health. As the cost of analyzing DNA goes down, this practice is becoming more and more common.
But unlike Facebook selling data to third parties, monetizing health data may benefit the individual as well as whoever ends up looking at the statistics from the other side. There is a lot of uncharted territory here, but it could potentially be a win-win as patients get paid for the data they provide. Verimos also uses modern cryptography techniques to keep everything private.
Menell said that whenever you go to see a doctor, there is a 95% chance your data is sold to someone. Most people don’t read the fine print, especially if it’s during an emergency. He then added since younger generations (Millennials and Gen Z) report caring less about digital privacy than other generations, this might not even be an issue going forward.
Devices such as fitbits and smartphones can track our steps, sleep patterns, and heart rates. When enough of this information is collected, the data can be used to determine some very important trends, such as what lifestyle choices can lead to certain diseases.
For example, it’s common knowledge that a sedentary lifestyle paired with poor diet can lead to a condition like Type 2 Diabetes. However, with health data from potentially billions of people, researchers will be able to go much more in-depth in discerning which habits lead to which diseases. This could result in more knowledge of how to avoid certain diseases, thus saving populations an exceptional amount of money.
There are still a few problems here. First, how do you motivate people in underserved communities? Not everyone can afford all of these health tech gadgets. Some people are working two or three jobs in addition to looking after families, and a healthy lifestyle falls by the wayside.
Speaker Elizabeth Jacobs, Chief of Primary Care and Value-Based Health at Dell Medical School, said she’s excited about what technology can do for the healthcare industry, but is always concerned about the populations that might get left behind. Jacobs cited that between 60 and 70 percent of personal bankruptcies come from healthcare bills; so not everyone can afford to pay $100 to have their DNA analyzed.
As healthcare continues to be incredibly expensive, the idea of monetizing it is becoming more popular. But is it ethical, and how do you regulate it? For example, if someone is poor, they might be inclined to take less money for their personal data.
Jacobs also referenced the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were cultured from a biopsied tumor after her death in 1951. Her family did not know of the research until the 1970s and received no compensation. Her cells are still used in research all over the world today and she has since received credit and recognition, but how can situations like this be avoided moving forward?
Roser asked the speakers about the recent concerns around 23AndMe selling data. Menell said it could potentially be a “winner take all” market. If 23AndMe could collect health statistics for 300 million Americans, they would be the go-to company for research.
AI can find patterns in data much, much quicker than humans. Scoblick said that if someone has a rare disease, doctors could easily use all of this medical data at their disposal to identify someone else that has it, and study it further.
Scoblick said the secret to sustainable weight loss is that there really isn’t one. Different diets work for different people. It has to be a very tailored approach, and health tech works the same way. The technology needs to be easy to use and accessible to people with different lifestyles and varying goals.
Jacobs said that for illiterate populations, wellness apps that rely on visuals insteads of words to communicate could be very useful, as well as measurement tools that can be used at home. She said there is evidence to suggest that some apps used to treat depression actually work, because they provide instant access to a therapist. Tech can help, but the human element is always going to be necessary.
Menell said that technology helps make users more aware of their lifestyle choices, which is half of the battle. Unsuccessful digital health companies all had one thing in common: trying to change behaviors. Instead, simply tracking behaviors seems to be the key. Scoblick said change begins with small steps, and this is what successful health apps are good at. Most participants just need a nudge.
For example, some employers—such as the City of Austin—will give you a discount on your premium if you meet certain requirements. In 2017, their diabetes program had 300 employees voluntarily enrolled. In 2018, that number has increased to 500. Preventative screenings are up and hospitalizations are down for those in the program. The City partners with Randall’s Pharmacy and Seton Healthcare, and participants must agree to getting their blood work done at least three times a month as well as attending a diabetes information session.
Something that once seemed scary is becoming increasingly commonplace. Giving up personal health information for profit might soon be the new normal, but there is a long way to go in working out the kinks. Health tech could lead us into a brighter and healthier future, but it’s still too early to tell how the data we’re sending, intentionally or unintentionally, is being used. Maybe it’s helping find a cure for cancer, or maybe it’s meant to find a pre-existing condition which could somehow be used against you. For better or worse, health tech is on the rise and is not slowing down anytime soon.