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How to Move the Needle in Digital Health This panel at SXSW explored the steps new companies will have to take to succeed in this growing field.

By Jacob Hall

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Digital health is big business, with $7.4 billion flowing into the space since 2010. This explosion of interest in digital health has some experts wondering what the future holds. "Despite this exuberance and excitement, there is much to do," says Marc Monseau, the founder of Mint Collective.

Monseau moderated a panel of healthcare experts at Austin's SXSW festival this week entitled "The Digital Health Bubble: Is it About to Burst?" He and other industry leaders explored the steps that new solutions will need to take to be true game changers in a new and untested landscape. Below, we pull together the panel's main takeaways.

Remember your client. Don't be so clever you neglect who healthcare really serves. Says Jane Sarasohn-Kahn of THINK-Health and the Health Populi Blog. "Who is the real customer in healthcare? The patient!" Sarasohn-Kahn points out that healthcare enjoys a consumer base that covers the entire population of the United States and that not enough companies take advantage of its full reach.

Think big. For success, scalability is essential. Says Marco Smit of Next Innovation Health Partners, "A lot of people outside of healthcare are building things for themselves. "If you don't solve problems at scale, it will be the end of your company."

Additionally, Sarasohn-Kahn says new services shouldn't overlook the per capita cost of medical care. She says, "If we move the needle on each individual, you're changing the cost curve." The best products will serve doctors, patients and employers. "An app that only touches on aspect of the system [isn't the Holy Grail]."

Fix the experience. Make healthcare pleasant, efficient and centered on the patient and you can change the face of an industry. "Convenience in healthcare," Smit continued. "When was the last time you heard those words in the same sentence?" Adds Sarasohn-Kahn. "Make it like Jiffy Lube. Lower the wait time. Get them in and get them out. Make healthcare fun, sexy even."

A carrot approach. Sarasohn-Kahn says that digital wellness plans that encourage healthy living will be hugely important. She points out the "carrot approach' used by app GymPact and how it "incorporates behavioral economics to do the right thing throughout the day." For instance, the app offers users a coupon to eat salad to help convince them to skip junk food. "Healthcare is getting smarter about what motivates us," she says. This kind of product "nudges" people toward a healthier lifestyle and ultimately has an impact on employers, physicians, pharmacists and patients.

Improve results. When it comes to healthcare, investors want a product that will provide actual medical results. "Build an evidence strategy early on. People buy into healthcare based on evidence," Smit says. "Don't go to your comfort zone and just tinker with technology."

Reduce friction. Robert Stern, the chief executive officer of Point of Care 360, says that the most successful companies working in the digital health field are those that connect patients and physicians. In his experience, doctors don't want to deal with email and they don't want to deal with the cloud -- they want something that instantly connects.

"What if during the actual visit, a patient could bring in data he's gathered on himself with an app and sync it with the doctor's clinical decision-making platform?" Stern asks. Through extensive crowdsourcing, his company has learned that patients want to track their health in between appointments. The various third party apps that patients use to track this information aren't trustworthy or organized. "Clinicians can't follow that information," he says. The killer platform would coexist with the physician's system and sync on the spot.

Do your research. Entrepreneurs need to do their homework to find new solutions. Says Smit, "This is a young space. Think about white spaces where no one is working." Replace things, he says, don't just add to what's already there.

Suggests Sarasohn-Kahn, "Look at physician workflow and see how people do their jobs." She says, "Help doctors solve work flow. Help patients make decisions. How can you make things more efficient [for doctors]? How can you delight [patients]?"

Be patient. No, the digital healthcare bubble is not about to burst because to the tech community, it's not hot. "The number of exits is increasing, but exits outside of healthcare are much higher," Smit says.

The first billion dollar exit will set the mold for healthcare and help wary investors see a model to follow. "The investor community for digital health doesn't really exist yet," he continued. "[Investors] are investing in proven companies. It's not an innovation investment. It's a financial investment."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jane Sarasohn-Kahn and omitted Marco Smit's first name and company Next Innovation Health Partners.

Jacob Hall is a writer living and working in Austin, Texas. He writes about movies, books, games and technology.

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