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Could AI And Healthcare Chatbots Help Clinicians Communicate With Patients?

Posted on April 25, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

AI-driven chatbots are becoming increasingly popular for a number of reasons, including improving technology and a need to automate some routine processes. (I’d also argue that these models are emerging because millennials and Gen Z-ers have spent their lives immersed in online-based social environments, and are far less likely to be afraid of or uncomfortable with such things.)

Given the maturation of the technology, I’m not surprised to see a number of AI-driven chatbots for healthcare emerging.  Some of these merely capture symptoms, such as the diabetes, CHF and mental health monitoring options by Sense.ly.

But other AI-based chatbots attempt to go much further. One emerging company, X2ai, is rolling out a psychology-oriented chatbot offering mental health counseling, Another, UK-based startup Babylon Health, offers a text-only mobile apps which provides medical evaluations and screenings. The app is being pilot-tested with the National Health Service, where early reports say that it’s diagnosing and triaging patients successfully.

One area I haven’t seen explored, though, is using a chatbot to help doctors handle routine communications with patients. Such an app could not only triage patients, as with the NHS example, but also respond to routine email messages.

Scheduling and administration

The reality is that while doctors and nurses are used to screening patients via telephone, they’re afraid of being swamped by tons of electronic patient messages. Many feel that if they agree to respond to patient email messages via a patient portal, they’ll spend too much time doing so. With most already time-starved, it’s not surprising that they’re worried about this.

But a combination of AI and healthcare chatbot technology could reduce their time required to engage patients. In fact, the right solution could address a few medical practice workflow issues at one time.

First, it could triage and route patient concerns to doctors and advanced practice nurses, something that’s done now by unqualified clerks or extremely busy nurses. For example, the patient would be able to tell the chatbot why they wanted to schedule a visit, with the chatbot teasing out some nuances in their situation. Then, the chatbot could kick the information over to the patient’s provider, who could, with a few clicks, forward a request to schedule either an urgent or standard consult.

Perhaps just as important, the AI technology could sit atop messages sent between provider and patient. If the patient message asked a routine question – such as when their test results would be ready – the system could bounce back a templated message stating, for instance, that test results typically take five business days to post on the patient portal. It could also send templated responses to requests for medical records, questions about doctor availability or types of insurance accepted and so on.

Diagnosis and triage

Meanwhile, if the AI concludes that the patient has a health concern to address, it could send back a link to the chatbot, which would ask pertinent questions and send the responses to the treating clinician. At that point, if things look questionable, the doctor might choose to intervene with their own email message or phone call.

Of course, providers will probably be worried about relying on a chatbot for patient triage, especially the legal consequences if the bot misses something important. But over time, if health chatbot pilots like the UK example offer good results, they may eventually be ready to give this approach a shot.

Also, patients may be uncertain about working with a chatbot at first. But if physicians stress that they’re not trying put them off, but rather, to save time so they can take their time when patients need them, I think they’ll be satisfied.

I admit that under ideal circumstances, clinicians would have more time to communicate with patients directly. But the truth is, they simply don’t, and pressuring them to take phone calls or respond to every online message from patients won’t work.

Besides, as providers work to prepare for value-based care, they’ll need not only physician extenders, but physician extender-extenders like chatbots to engage patients and keep track of their needs. So let’s give them a shot.

The Disconnect Between Where Wearables Are Needed and Where Wearables are Used

Posted on April 21, 2017 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

No one can argue that we haven’t seen an explosion of wearable devices in the healthcare space. In most cases, they’ve been a consumer purchase, but there are a few cases of them being used clinically. While we’ve seen a huge uptick in wearable use, there seems to be a massive disconnect between those who use them and those who need to use them.

This was highlighted to me recently when I heard someone say that at the recent Boston Marathon they predicted that almost every athlete running the Boston Marathon had some sort of tracking device on them to track their running. Runners love to track everything from steps to heart rate to speed and everything in between. I wish the Boston Marathon did a survey to know what devices the runners used. That would be a fascinating view into which wearables are most popular, but I digress.

When I heard this person make this observation, I quickly thought “That’s not who we need using wearables if we want to lower the cost of healthcare.”

With some exceptions, those who run the Boston Marathon are in incredible shape. They exercise a lot (maybe too much in some cases) and most of them eat quite healthy. These are the outliers and my guess is that they’re not the people that are costing our healthcare system so much money. That seems like a fair assumption to me.

Yes, the people we need using these wearables are those people sitting on the couch back at home. We need the unhealthy people tracking their health, not healthy people. While not always the case, unhealthy people don’t really want to track their health. What’s more demotivating to your healthy goals than being in a FitBit group with a marthon runner that always destroys you?

This is a challenging psychological problem that I haven’t seen any wearable company address. I guess there’s too much money to be made with healthy people that want to track themselves that they don’t need to dive into the psychological impact of wearables on unhealthy people. However, that’s exactly what we’re going to need to do as wearables become more clinically relevant and can help us better understand a patient’s health.

A Tool For Evaluating E-Health Applications

Posted on April 11, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

In recent years, developers have released a staggering number of mobile health applications, with nearly 150,000 available as of 2015. And the demand for such apps is rising, with the mHealth services market projected to reach $26 billion globally this year, according to analyst firm Research 2 Guidance.

Unfortunately, given the sheer volume of apps available, it’s tricky to separate the good from the bad. We haven’t even agreed on common standards by which to evaluate such apps, and neither regulatory agencies nor professional associations have taken a firm position on the subject.

For example, while we have seen groups like the American Medical Association endorse the use of mobile health applications, their acceptance came with several caveats. While the organization conceded that such apps might be OK, it noted that such approval applies only if the industry develops an evidence base demonstrating that the apps are accurate, effective, safe and secure. And other than broad practice guidelines, the trade group didn’t get into the details of how its members could evaluate app quality.

However, at least one researcher has made an attempt at developing standards which identify the best e-Health software apps and computer programs. Assistant professor Amit Baumel, PhD, of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, has recently led a team that created a tool to evaluate the quality and therapeutic potential of such applications.

To do his research, a write-up of which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Baumel developed an app-rating tool named Enlight. Rather than using automated analytics, Enlight was designed as a manual scale to be filled out by trained raters.

To create the foundation for Enlight, researchers reviewed existing literature to decide which criteria were relevant to determine app quality. The team identified a total of 476 criteria from 99 sources to build the tool. Later, the researchers tested Enlight on 42 mobile apps and 42 web-based programs targeting modifiable behaviors related to medical illness or mental health.

Once tested, researchers rolled out the tool. Enlight asked participants to score 11 different aspects of app quality, including usability, visual design, therapeutic persuasiveness and privacy. When they evaluated the responses, they found that Enlighten raters reached substantially similar results when rating a given app. They also found that all of the eHealth apps rated “fair” or above received the same range of scores for user engagement and content – which suggests that consumer app users have more consistent expectations than we might have expected.

That being said, Baumel’s team noted that even if raters like the content and found the design to be engaging, that didn’t necessarily mean that the app would change people’s behaviors. The researchers concluded that patients need not only a persuasive app design, but also qualities that support a therapeutic alliance.

In the future, the research team plans to research which aspects of app quality do a better job at predicting user behaviors. They’re also testing the feasibility of rolling out an Enlight-based recommendation system for clinicians and end users. If they do succeed, they’ll be addressing a real need. We can’t continue to integrate patient-generated app data until we can sort great apps from useless, inaccurate products.

E-Patient Update: Doctors Need To Lead Tech Charge

Posted on April 7, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Doctors, like any other group of people, vary in how comfortable they are with technology. Despite the fact that their job is more technology-focused than ever before, many clinicians use tech tools because they must.

As a result, they aren’t great role models when it comes to encouraging patients to engage with portals, try mobile apps or even pay their healthcare bills online. I too am frustrated when doctors can’t answer basic tech questions, despite my high comfort level with technology. I like to think that we’re on the same page, and I feel sort of alienated when my doctors don’t seem to care about the digital health advantage.

This needs to change. Given the extent to which technology permeates care delivery, physicians must become better at explaining how basic tech tools work, why they’re used and how they benefit patients.

Below, I’ve listed three tools which I consider to be critical to current medical practices, based on both my patient experiences and my ongoing research on health IT tools. To me, knowing something about each of them is unavoidable if doctors want to keep up with trends and improve patient care.

The top three tools I see as central to serving patients effectively are:

  • Patient portals: This is arguably the most important technical option doctors can share with patients. To get the most value out of portals, every doctor – especially in primary care – should be able to explain to patients why accessing their data can improve their health and lives.
  • Connected health: For a while, connected health/remote monitoring solutions were a high-end, expensive way to track patient health. But today, these options are everywhere and accessible virtually anyone. (My husband bought a connected glucose monitor for $10 a few weeks ago!) If nothing else, clinicians should be able to explain to patients how such devices can help tame chronic diseases and prevent hospitalizations.
  • Mobile apps: While few apps, if any, are universally trusted by doctors, there’s still plenty of them which can help patients log, measure and monitor important data, such as medication compliance or blood pressure levels. While they don’t need to understand how mobile apps work, they should know something of why patients can benefit from using them.

Of course, this list is brief, but it’s a decent place to start. After all, I’m not suggesting that physicians need to get a master’s in health IT to serve patients adequately; I’m just recommending that they study up and prepare to guide their patients in using helpful tools.

Ultimately, it’s not as important that clinicians use or even have a deep understanding of digital health tools, health bands, smartwatches, sensor-laden clothing or virtual reality. They don’t have to understand cybersecurity or know how to reboot a server. They just have to know how to help patients navigate the healthcare world as it is.

By this point, in fact, I’d argue that it’s irresponsible to avoid learning about technologies that can help patients manage their health. Bear in mind that even if they don’t act like it, even confident, experienced patients like me truly admire our doctors and take what they say seriously. So if I am enthusiastic about using tech tools to manage my health, but my doctor’s eyes glaze over when I talk about them, even I feel a bit discouraged. So why not learn enough to encourage me on my journey?

Epic Launches FHIR-Based App Platform

Posted on March 2, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

It looks like Epic is getting on the FHIR train. According to an article in Modern Healthcare, Epic is launching a new program – serving physician practices and hospitals – to help them build customized apps. The program, App Orchard, will also support independent mobile app developers who target providers and patients.

The launch follows on the heels of a similar move by Cerner, which set up its own sandbox for developers interested in linking to its EMR using FHIR. The Cerner Open Developer Experience (code_), which launched in early 2016, is working with firms creating SMART on FHIR apps.

App Orchard, for its part, lets developers use a FHIR-based API to access an Epic development sandbox. This will allow the developers to address issues in connecting their apps to the Epic EMR. Previously, Epic wouldn’t let mobile app developers connect to its EMR until a customer requested permission on their behalf.

In addition to providing the API, App Orchard will also serve as an online marketplace along the lines of Google Play or the Apple app store. However, end users won’t be able to download the app for their own use — only software developers and vendors will be able to do that. The idea is that these developers will create the apps on contract to customers.

Meanwhile, according to the magazine, Epic will screen and pick an initial group of developers to the program. Brett Gann, who leads the Epic-based team developing App Orchard, told Modern Healthcare that factors which will distinguish one developer from the other include app safety, security, privacy, reliability, system integrity, data integrity and scalability.

As part of their participation, developers will get documentation listing these criteria and what they mean to Epic. The Epic team will expect the developers to commit to following these guidelines and explain how they’ll do so, Gann said.

While Epic hasn’t made any predictions about what types of apps developers will pursue, recent research offers a clue. According to new research by SMART and KLAS, providers are especially interested in apps that help with patient engagement, EMR data viewing, diagnostics, clinical decision support and documentation tasks.

One thing to watch is how Epic decides to handle licensing, ownership, and charges for participation in their Orchard Program. If they have a true open API, then this will be a good move for the industry. If instead they choose to take ownership of everything that’s created, put restrictive licenses on developers, and/or charge huge sums to participate, then it’s unlikely to see much true innovation that’s possible with an open API. We’ll see how that plays out.

Meanwhile, in other Epic news, Becker’s Hospital Review notes that the vendor is planning to develop two additional versions of its EMR. Adam Whitlatch, a lead developer there, told the site that the new versions will include a mid-range EMR with fewer modules (dubbed “utility”), and a slimmer version with fewer modules and advanced features, to be called “Sonnet.”

Whitlatch said the new versions will target physician practices and smaller hospitals, which might prefer a lower-cost EMR that can be implemented more quickly than the standard Epic product. It’s also worth noting that the two new EMR versions will be interoperable with the traditional Epic EMR (known as “all-terrain”).

All told, these are intriguing developments which could have an impact on the EMR industry as a whole.

On the one hand, not only is Epic supporting the movement towards interchangeable apps based on FHIR, it appears that the vendor has decided to give in to the inevitable and started to open up its platform (something it hasn’t done willingly in the past).  Over time, this could affect providers’ overall Epic development plans if Epic executes it well and enables innovation on Orchard and doesn’t restrict it.

Also, the new versions of the Epic could make it available to a much wider audience, particularly if the stripped-down versions are significantly cheaper than its signature EMR. In fact, an affordable Epic EMR could trigger a big shakeup in the ambulatory EMR market.

Let’s see if more large EMR vendors decide to offer an open API. If access to EMR APIs became common, it would represent a major shift in the whole health IT ecosystem.

The Healthcare AI Future, From Google’s DeepMind

Posted on February 22, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

While much of its promise is still emerging, it’s hard to argue that AI has arrived in the health IT world. As I’ve written in a previous article, AI can already be used to mine EMR data in a sophisticated way, at least if you understand its limitations. It also seems poised to help providers predict the incidence and progress of diseases like congestive heart failure. And of course, there are scores of companies working on other AI-based healthcare projects. It’s all heady stuff.

Given AI’s potential, I was excited – though not surprised – to see that world-spanning Google has a dog in this fight. Google, which acquired British AI firm DeepMind Technologies a few years ago, is working on its own AI-based healthcare solutions. And while there’s no assurance that DeepMind knows things that its competitors don’t, its status as part of the world’s biggest data collector certainly comes with some advantages.

According to the New Scientist, DeepMind has begun working with the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, which oversees three hospitals. DeepMind has announced a five-year agreement with the trust, in which it will give it access to patient data. The Google-owned tech firm is using that data to develop and roll out its healthcare app, which is called Streams.

Streams is designed to help providers kick out alerts about a patient’s condition to the cellphone used by the doctor or nurse working with them, in the form of a news notification. At the outset, Streams will be used to find patients at risk of kidney problems, but over the term of the five-year agreement, the developers are likely to add other functions to the app, such as patient care coordination and detection of blood poisoning.

Streams will deliver its news to iPhones via push notifications, reminders or alerts. At present, given its focus on acute kidney injury, it will focus on processing information from key metrics like blood tests, patient observations and histories, then shoot a notice about any anomalies it finds to a clinician.

This is all part of an ongoing success story for DeepMind, which made quite a splash in 2016. For example, last year its AlphaGo program actually beat the world champion at Go, a 2,500-year-old strategy game invented in China which is still played today. DeepMind also achieved what it terms “the world’s most life-like speech synthesis” by creating raw waveforms. And that’s just a couple of examples of its prowess.

Oh, and did I mention – in an achievement that puts it in the “super-smart kid you love to hate” category – that DeepMind has seen three papers appear in prestigious journal Nature in less than two years? It’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from the brilliant minds at Google, which can afford the world’s biggest talents. But it’s still a bit intimidating.

In any event, if you haven’t heard of the company yet (and I admit I hadn’t) I’m confident you will soon. While the DeepMind team isn’t the only group of geniuses working on AI in healthcare, it can’t help but benefit immensely from being part of Google, which has not only unimaginable data sources but world-beating computing power at hand. If it can be done, they’re going to do it.

E-Patient Update: Hey Government, Train Patients Too!

Posted on February 10, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Recently I got a most interesting email from the ONC and A-list healthcare educator Columbia University. In the message, it offered me a free online course taught by Columbia’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, apparently paid for by ONC funding. (Unfortunately, they aren’t giving away free toasters to students, or I definitely would have signed up. No wait, I’m sorry, I did register, but I would have done it faster for the toaster.)

The course, which is named Health Informatics For Innovation, Value and Enrichment) or HI-FIVE, is designed to serve just about anyone in healthcare, including administrators, managers, physicians, nurses, social workers an care coordinators. Subjects covered by the course include all of the usual favorites, including healthcare data analytics, population health, care coordination and interoperability, value-based care and patient-centered care.

If I seem somewhat flippant, it’s just because the marketing material seemed a little…uh…breathlessly cheery and cute given the subject. I can certainly see the benefits of offering such a course at no cost, especially for those professionals (such as social workers) unlikely to be offered a broader look at health IT issues.

On the other hand, I’d argue that there’s another group which needs this kind of training more – and that’s consumers like myself. While I might be well-informed on these subjects, due to my geeky HIT obsession, my friends and family aren’t. And while most of the professionals served by the course will get at least some exposure to these topics on the job, my mother, my sister and my best girlfriend have essentially zero chance of finding consumer-friendly information on using health IT.

Go where the need is

As those who follow this column know, I’ve previously argued hard for hospitals and medical groups to offer patients training on health IT basics, particularly on how to take advantage of their portal. But given that my advice seems to be falling on deaf ears – imagine that! – it occurs to me that a government agency like ONC should step in and help. If closing important knowledge gaps is important to our industry, why not this particular gap. Hey, go where the need is greatest.

After all, as I’ve noted time and again, we do want patients to understand consumer health IT and how to reap its benefits, as this may help them improve their health. But if you want engagement, folks, people have to understand what you’re talking about and why it matters. As things stand, my sense is that few people outside the #healthit bubble have the faintest idea of what we’re talking about (and wouldn’t really want to know either).

What would a consumer-oriented ONC course cover? Well, I’m sure the authorities can figure that out, but I’m sure education on portal use, reading medical data, telemedicine, remote monitoring, mobile apps and wearables wouldn’t come amiss. Honestly, it almost doesn’t matter how much the course would cover – the key here would be to get people interested and comfortable.

The biggest problem I can see here is getting consumers to actually show up for these courses, which will probably seem threatening to some. It may not be easy to provoke their interest, particularly if they’re technophobic generally. But there’s plenty of consumer marketing techniques that course creators could use to get the job done, particularly if you’re giving your product away. (If all else fails, the toaster giveaway might work.)

If providers don’t feel equipped to educate patients, I hope that someone does, sometime soon, preferably a neutral body like ONC rather than a self-interested vendor. It’s more than time.

Switching Out EMRs For Broad-Based HIT Platforms

Posted on February 8, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

I’ve always enjoyed reading HISTalk, and today was no exception. This time, I came across a piece by a vendor-affiliated physician arguing that it’s time for providers to shift from isolated EMRs to broader, componentized health IT platforms. The piece, by Excelicare chief medical officer Toby Samo, MD, clearly serves his employer’s interests, but I still found the points he made to be worth discussing.

In his column, he notes that broad technical platforms, like those managed by Uber and Airbnb, have played a unique role in the industries they serve. And he contends that healthcare players would benefit from this approach. He envisions a kind of exchange allowing the use of multiple components by varied healthcare organizations, which could bring new relationships and possibilities.

“A platform is not just a technology,” he writes, “but also ‘a new business model that uses technology to connect people, organizations and resources in an interactive ecosystem.’”

He offers a long list of characteristics such a platform might have, including that it:

* Relies on apps and modules which can be reused to support varied projects and workflows
* Allows users to access workflows on smartphones and tablets as well as traditional PCs
* Presents the results of big data analytics processes in an accessible manner
* Includes an engine which allows clients to change workflows easily
* Lets users with proper security authorization to change templates and workflows on the fly
* Helps users identify, prioritize and address tasks
* Offers access to high-end clinical decision support tools, including artificial intelligence
* Provides a clean, easy-to-use interface validated by user experience experts

Now, the idea of shared, component-friendly platforms is not new. One example comes from the Healthcare Services Platform Consortium, which as of last August was working on a services-oriented architecture platform which will support a marketplace for interoperable healthcare applications. The HSPC offering will allow multiple providers to deliver different parts of a solution set rather than each having to develop their own complete solution. This is just one of what seem like scores of similar initiatives.

Excelicare, for its part, offers a cloud-based platform housing a clinical data repository. The company says its platform lets providers construct a patient-specific longitudinal health record on the fly by mining existing EHRs claims repositories and other data. This certainly seems like an interesting idea.

In all candor, my instinct is that these platforms need to be created by a neutral third party – such as travel information network SABRE – rather than connecting providers via a proprietary platform created by companies like Excelicare. Admittedly, I don’t have a deep understanding of Excelicare’s technology works, or how open its platform is, but I doubt it would be viable financially if it didn’t attempt to lock providers into its proprietary technology.

On the other hand, with no one interoperability approach having gained an unbeatable lead, one never knows what’s possible. Kudos to Samo and his colleagues for making an effort to advance the conversation around data sharing and collaboration.

Healthcare Trade Groups Join To Evaluate mHealth Apps

Posted on December 29, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

A group of leading healthcare organizations, including HIMSS, the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association and DHX Group, have come together to evaluate mHealth apps. The new organization, which calls itself Xcertia, says members came together to foster knowledge about clinical content, usability, privacy, security and evidence of efficacy for such apps.

It’s hardly surprising that that healthcare groups would want to take a stand on the issue of health app quality. According to a study published late last year by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, there are at least 165,000 mHealth apps available on the iTunes and Android stores.

But what percentage of those apps are worth using? Nobody really knows. It’s hard to tell after casual use which apps are useful and which don’t live up to their hype, which protect patient privacy and which leave data open to prying eyes, and particularly, which offer some form of clinical benefit and which just waste people’s time. And without a set of formal standards by which to judge, it’s very hard to compare one with the other in a meaningful way.

This uncertainty is holding back mHealth adoption by doctors. According to a recent survey by the AMA, physicians are interested in using apps and related tools – in fact, 85% told researches that digital health solutions can have a positive impact on patient care – they’re also reluctant to “prescribe” apps until they understand them better. (There’s also a group of doctors I’ve encountered who say that until mobile apps are FDA-approved, they won’t take them seriously, but that may be another story.)

In late November, attendees at a recent AMA meeting moved the mHealth puck up the ice a little bit, adopting a set of proposed set best principles for mobile health design. The criteria they adopted for mobile apps and devices included that they should follow evidence-based practice guidelines, support data portability and interoperability, and have a clinical evidence base to support their use. But these guidelines are hardly specific enough to help doctors decide which apps to adopt.

So far, all Xcertia is willing to say about its plans is that it plans to develop a framework of principles that will “positively impact the trajectory of the mobile health app industry.” The guidelines should help both consumers and clinicians choose mHealth apps, the group reports.

Let’s hope those guidelines are less ho-hum than those coming out of the AMA meeting – after all, it certainly would be good if developers and providers had concrete standards upon which they could base their app efforts.

American Well Deal Adds Remote Physical Exams To Its Offerings

Posted on December 9, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Telehealth provider American Well has partnered with a vendor allowing patients to conduct and transfer data from their own basic physical exam during telemedical consults.

The partner, TytoCare, offers an “examination platform” allowing patients to do their own medical examination of the heart, lungs, abdomen, ears, throat, skin and temperature at home, then share the information with the clinician before or during their virtual visit.

Tyto’s consumer platform TytoHome, which is priced at $299, combines a digital stethoscope, otoscope, thermometer and examination camera. The company also offers a model, TytoPro, designed for professional use, which offers extended battery life, a headset for listening to heart and lung sounds, initial set of disposables for the otoscope and tongue depressor, and software designed specifically for clinician use. The company doesn’t say what the Pro technology costs.

Tyto’s software platform, meanwhile, offers cloud-based secure digital exchange of clinical data and a clinical repository. The company says it can integrate with most EHR systems as part of its TytoLink integration services. It doesn’t say what those integration services will cost, but it seems likely that they don’t come free.

At least at the outset, the partners plan to deliver services to health systems and employers, but without a doubt plans to scale beyond this. And they’re likely to have the resources to do so. American Well has established a foothold in telemedicine, while Tyto Care has received over $19 million in funding to date from investors that include Walgreens.

It’s worth noting at this point that TytoCare is far from the only player in the market offering remote examination tools. For example, I’m familiar with at least one vendor, MedWand Digital Health, offering a similar bundle of remote examination technologies. The MedWand platform lets consumers measure their heart rate or pulse or pulse ox level, listen to their heart, lungs or abdomen, look into their mouth, throat and ears, examine their skin and take the temperature. It can also integrate with other remote monitoring tools, such as connected glucometers of blood pressure monitors. It sells for $249.

And MedWand, like TytoCare, has venture backing, in this case from a technical partner. The company recently received a “major” investment from the venture arm for Maxim Integrated Products, which designs, manufactures and sells semiconductor products.

In my opinion, however, American Well may have a meaningful advantage over other competitors, as it appears to have fairly strong connections with health plans and health systems. The telehealth vendor has partnerships with more than 170 health plans and systems, and has created an enterprise telehealth platform designed to connect with providers’ clinical information systems.

While a company like MedWand may be better position to scale up a consumer technology offering — given backing by a semiconductor maker — over the near term I’d argue that better to be on good terms with those delivering and financing care. Right now, my guess is that very few consumers are willing to sink almost $300 into a home telehealth platform, even if they occasionally use telemedicine services, but this seems little doubt that health systems and health plans see the value of offering such services in a sophisticated way.

If I were either of these companies — or one of their competitors — I’d try to employers, health plans and health systems to buy and place the devices in the homes of chronically ill or high risk patients. But I don’t know if that’s in their plans. Let’s see how the next 12 months go.