As a co-founder and CEO of the San Diego-based Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance, Rob McCray has spent the past decade or longer shepherding the convergence of innovative wireless technologies and healthcare.
To paraphrase the poet, he still has miles to go before he sleeps.
McCray has done his tour of duty as the voice in the wilderness. He’s helped to focus the industry on using wireless technologies to change consumers’ unhealthy behavior. He’s seen the rise of wearable technology companies like Fitbit and MC10—and the fall of Zeo and its sleep-monitoring business. McCray saw how Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) built a wireless health business that led to the formation of its Qualcomm Life subsidiary. And he watched how Athenahealth’s $293 million acquisition of Epocrates last year became a catalyzing event for an emerging industry.
Nevertheless, the emerging wireless health industry is still running up against a lot of barriers. In fact, McCray has focused the Wireless-Life Science Alliance’s 9th Convergence Summit on highlighting the most-significant barriers to achieving the goals of “connected health,” the industry’s latest marketing term of art. (McCray also has been at the forefront in shifting industry’s nomenclature, from “wireless health” to “mobile health” and “digital health.”) The three-day conference, which begins with an invitation-only afternoon session on May 14 and public sessions that convene on May 15, will be held at the downtown Omni San Diego Hotel.
“Technology is not a limiting factor in enabling healthcare solutions,” McCray says. “It’s adoption.”
Through the years, one constant has remained: If ever there was a hidebound industry long overdue for disruptive innovation, it is the American healthcare system. McCray describes it as a $2.8 trillion industry that delivers, on an overall population basis, lousy outcomes. But change doesn’t happen easily when vested interests defend the status quo in a multi-trillion-dollar industry.
“Defending the status quo makes it difficult for customers [i.e. care-givers] and payers to make rational decisions to invest in knowledge or service that improve quality, but doesn’t necessarily improve revenue,” McCray says. In other words, it’s hard to sell innovations that improve the quality of patient outcomes when every hospital admission–and readmission—represents another revenue opportunity. As he puts it, there’s no reimbursement code for quality of outcomes.
“I’ve never done a formal survey,” McCray says, “but when I ask [industry leaders] ‘if you could change one thing that would improve the market,’ they say it’s the fee-for-service system.”
Yet McCray also maintains that the tools and knowledge now exist to fix this runaway business model in healthcare—and he views San Diego as a model region, where new wireless health and IT systems come together with life sciences innovation and the popularization of healthy food, fitness, and lifestyles. “San Diego probably has a more concentrated set of these resources than any other place of any size in the world,” McCray says.
Some of the barriers that the summit is intended to address are:
—Curating for outcomes. Establishing the safety and efficacy of healthcare innovation usually is slow and expensive, and delays the timely introduction of useful products. New connected healthcare tools and adaptive methods for clinical studies offer a way to break through traditional methods of validation. The speakers include Xconomist Leroy Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.
—Engaging consumers to be healthy. To maintain health, people should be engaged with their own health as consumers and not just as patients.
Improving lifestyles and behavior can reduce the demand on healthcare services. Engaging consumers in new digital healthcare devices and connected health programs can help drive personal health improvements.
—Creating a sustainable healthcare system. Can innovation reduce the demand for chronic care services and solve the access and cost problems in healthcare? What are the best business models in the healthcare sector?
—Reforming healthcare policies and payments. If the fee-for-service model in healthcare is not sustainable, how should it be reformed? How should health information technologies be regulated? Can new IT tools increase the transparency of healthcare pricing and reduce the number of poor outcomes?
—Improving customer service in healthcare. With telemedicine, healthcare providers can remotely deliver clinical services at lower cost. But under traditional licensing laws, for example, a doctor licensed to practice in California cannot care for a patient outside the state. Can new business models bridge this gap between healthcare providers and their patients?
—Implementing innovative technologies. How do hospital customers think about major purchases? What are the biggest barriers to adoption and what are the pitfalls in integrating new technologies with hospital IT platforms? Top executives from Sotera Wireless, AirStrip, Skylight Healthcare Systems, Perfect Serve, Calgary Scientific, and the chief digital officer of the Scripps Translational Science Institute discuss their experiences.
If getting through such barriers seems unrealistic or even naïve, McCray says popular attitudes toward healthcare are changing in the United States—driven chiefly by increasing costs and the surprisingly high number of hospital and medical errors.
Healthcare providers and payers “are paying more attention to this because they recognize the financial model is changing,” McCray says. “When the average family’s out-of-pocket expense for healthcare is over $5,000 a year, it leads to conversations we’ve never had before.”