You’re sick. But you don’t know what’s wrong. You grow more and more worried as you get passed around between experts, having test results returned to you as doctors shrug their shoulders in confusion--there’s no diagnosis in sight. And at the end of it all, you get handed a bill. The specialists you saw didn’t take insurance coverage. It’s $4,000 later, and you’re still sick.
Patients are often frustrated with the medical care they receive, and just 251 of 3,500 hospitals with star ratings in the U.S. were given five stars in patient satisfaction. It’s for this reason that more patients are turning to personalized healthcare -- a term used to describe a model that tailors medical care to individuals and enables patients to pivot healthcare to their specific needs, often helping them to solve their "medical mysteries" and prevent disease. Globally, the industry is expected to be worth $149 billion by 2020; what’s driving this growth; and what does it mean for the consumer?
Personalized healthcare solutions
According to the Cleveland Clinic, personalized healthcare is a broad platform that includes genomics and genetic profile testing to use specific markers to inform a person’s cancer treatment, for example. Personalized healthcare also looks at other biological information and biomarkers to gauge the risk of disease in individuals, instead of solely considering things like age, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. But, personalized healthcare isn’t solely based on genetics, it also means providing individuals with tools like digital health and fitness apps, telemedicine providers, and at-home testing kits. These on-demand health solutions enable people to understand their health on their own terms, while receiving doctor input.
Personalized medicine really started with telemedicine a decade ago, and the platforms continue to allow people to talk to U.S. board certified physicians 24/7 by phone, video, or chat. Doctor On Demand provides live video doctor visits to assess, diagnose, and write prescriptions to patients. It offers medical, pediatric and mental health care, and each visit cost between $40-$95 USD. The app is also covered under some insurance plans. HealthJoy is similar, and offers access to doctors via online chat or by phone, prescription savings plans, and local doctor recommendations.
The next generation of telemedicine is emerging as more health-based apps come onto the market, particularly in the mental health space. Talkspace allows patients to message with therapists via the app, and unlimited messaging therapy cost just $25 USD a month. Lantern is another app, which gives users daily health exercises to improve their mental health and access to a professional coach who offers feedback. Lantern has partnered was 40 colleges and universities in the US, including Stanford University and St. Louis’ Washington University to conduct studies and ensure its programs are effective.
There’s also been major steps for consumers in being able to collect their own at-home samples. Some are familiar with 23andMe, which is a company that helps users learn about their ancestry and health conditions through DNA testing. The company sends DNA test kits to its customers, and tells them how to properly collect a saliva sample to send to the lab. Once analyzed, users are emailed their results. The test costs $149 USD. Helix is a company that’s doing something a little different - they want to create the first ‘app store’ for genetic information. The idea is to collect a saliva sample from each person who buys the company’s app, analyze the genes, and post the findings online so that developers can access them. The aim is to help others develop apps using DNA information to make this information accessible for consumers to learn about health risks. Last year, the company raised more than $100 million USD in funding to make it all happen. Overal, in 2015, $5.8 billion USD was invested in digital health startups, hitting a new record high.
What makes people turn to personalized healthcare?
People have access to more information than ever before and they are using this information to improve their health. As we all know, the on-demand economy is reaching a new high; people want to be able to connect with a doctor at any time of day, deliver their own tests, and receive therapy sessions through digital devices. So t’s natural that the personalized healthcare model has started to take hold in the last couple of years, after a decade of emerging technologies and services.
Recent shifts in U.S. healthcare and insurance legislation have helped push personalized healthcare forward too. More people are taking high deductible plans - according to the U.S. News Health Care Index, less than half of private health insurance plans had deductibles in 2002. That number rose to more than 80 percent by 2013. Moreover, a Kaiser Family Foundation report shows the average amount a person had to pay out of pocket for medical care after insurance skyrocketed 255 percent from 2006 to 2015. When people know they have to pay more than expected they look around for alternatives, which points them in the direction of personalized healthcare practices, often cheaper and more accessible options.
Personalized medicine has matured in the past decade, driven by rising healthcare costs and with this, more individual accountability for medical decisions. Through the likes of wearables, at-home testing kits, telemedicine and genomics, people are more educated about their health than ever before. However, the industry is still maturing, which means controversies and setbacks will inevitably arise. There are apps on the market that dole out questionable, if not out right wrong, advice; some going so far to advise people in a manic bipolar episode to drink alcohol to put themselves to sleep, for example. The recent controversy with blood-testing startup Theranos, which announced it was voiding two years of blood tests, also highlights the importance for startups to follow all regulatory validation and approval processes -- especially when lives are at stake.
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But the record-breaking levels of funding for digital health startups proves the industry isn’t slowing down. As more and more consumer-focused health startups emerge and are backed by clinical research, the stigma that exists surrounding personalized medicine will diminish. Talking to a registered therapist, managing your own health tests, or seeing your regular doctor through apps may just be the new normal.