The remedy is to reimagine health

Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to invest US$3bn in hi-tech disease-treatment tools as digital advances sweep every apect of health and wellness. Could a perfect storm of innovation and entrepreneurship herald a new era of healthcare, asks Unity Stoakes

Every aspect of our lives is affected by technology, data and a connected innovation ecosystem. The multi-trillion-dollar healthcare industry is in the early stages of positive creative disruption and experiencing a global renaissance made possible by rapidly changing business models, demand for better (and more cost-effective) care, a digital revolution and an influx of talented transformers equipped to radically improve the status quo.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity is the wave of innovation sparked by entrepreneurs and innovators reimagining the industry. This new era of transformation is sparked not only by a golden age of entrepreneurship, but also policy change, increased demand for solutions to improve access and reduce costs, and a digital revolution being applied to every aspect of health and wellness. The hopeful outcome: to create health solutions as user-friendly as the most elegant consumer technology today that improve access and cut costs.

Investment firms are backing this brand-new sector with extraordinary zeal. In 2014, digital health worldwide saw US$6.9bn in funding, according to StartUp Health’s Insight data, a figure that rivals sectors such as software.

But it takes more than just investment and innovation to catalyse disruption of an industry. Timing is a crucial factor as well. Why is creative disruption poised to transform entrenched practices today?

There have been several trends converging over the past few years. The first is healthcare reform, which is creating massive disruption among business models and incentives as we shift from fee-for-service care to value-based care. In the US, with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in favour of the Affordable Care Act, it’s clear that reform is here to stay, which will have a seismic impact on one of the world's largest healthcare markets.

Entrepreneurs and innovators will make the change happen and are best placed to leverage the digital revolution in healthcare

Population dynamics and a chronic disease epidemic are also driving innovation. Globally, epidemiological trends are creating demand for new solutions. In the US, for example, baby boomer generation will be 65 and older in less than 15 years’ time, meaning more than 20 per cent of the population will be over the age of 65, according to the US Census Bureau.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2014, 39 per cent of adults aged 18 years and older were overweight. The WHO has also found that the number of adults with one or more chronic diseases is on the rise. Between 1990 and 2020 the WHO expects chronic diseases in developing countries to have risen by 60 per cent, compared with less than 10 per cent in developed countries. Globally, infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV also represent a massive challenge to governments, and a moral obligation to develop systems that can improve access to life-saving treatments.

Perhaps most significantly, the digital revolution is expanding what’s possible. Ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a world in which a patient could benefit from quality care outside a hospital or doctor’s clinic. But a host of digital solutions is bringing services to us in our homes, offices and grocery stores. And in developing nations, it means care can be deployed to remote places for the first time. Telemedicine and digital solutions are improving access to care, driving costs down and streamlining the care delivery workflow.

The digital revolution has also created a new ‘connected health’ paradigm. Our gadgets and databases are becoming intertwined. Soon, we will be able to pull our own electronic medical records from our phone or watch. There’s also enormous potential in the 'internet of things'. For example, we’re starting to see our refrigerators and microwaves 'talk' to our wearables and mobile health devices – a digital connection that will allow us to more accurately track daily wellness, diet and fitness trends.

Entrepreneurs and innovators will make the change happen and are best placed to leverage the digital revolution in healthcare. To do this, they will need access to enabling environments, in which governments and policy-makers create ecosystems that nurture progress.

As is always the case with innovation, there will be hang-ups along the way: some solutions will work, and some will be phased out. But the main point is that we are in an era of reimagination in healthcare, and the most transformative solutions are still being created and implemented.