Analysis: Digital Health Companies Aren't Solving the Right Problems

 (Antonio Diaz/iStock)

Digital health is booming. The market that includes health apps and wearables will increase around 1,200 percent over the next eight years, according to one forecast.

So what's propelling this surge in demand? "A growing proliferation of chronic diseases, namely diabetes, cancer and heart ailments ... " the report says.

Not only is this trend alarming, said the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Stephen Downs at the recent Stanford Medicine X conference,  but many of the solutions offered by digital health companies are not going to help.

In this age of the Fitbit, Downs said, digital health companies are focused on monitoring the consequences of our notoriously sedentary lifestyles. But what is really called for from innovators is to stop treating symptoms and start remedying the roots of the problem.

“The system needs to be re-engineered!” said Downs, chief technology and strategy officer of RWJF, a philanthropic organization focused on health. "We don’t need an app that counts steps, because that really just tells you that your day doesn’t naturally incorporate the time and space to walk."

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Progress = Inactivity

Downs is of the opinion that some of our most cherished and widely used inventions have resulted in a kind of apocalypse of inactivity: Automobiles helped create pedestrian-unfriendly suburbs; washing machines provided leisure time -- to watch more TV. And the appearance of the remote control meant we no longer even had to get up to change the channel.

Even our thumb muscles have been given the day off since digital assistants like Siri gained the ability to write our text messages, he noted.

All these things, combined with an automobile-driven, fast food culture, said Downs, have contributed to a national diabetes epidemic and a stunning rise in obesity rates.

We Need Stuff Like This 

So how to remedy the roots of the unhealthy environments we've created? Downs says engineers and designers in all industries should be thinking about their products' effects on our health.

He cited the Changing Places group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology media lab as a project that's attempting to create core solutions that fundamentally change human behavior. One of the lab's initiatives: designing ways to feed people healthier diets through urban farms that make use of city spaces. (Imagine crops growing on the sides of buildings, for instance.)

Crops grown on the side of a building could help foster urban farming.
Crops grown on the side of a building could help foster urban farming. (MIT CityFARM)

The MIT researchers claim their techniques could not only completely eliminate the massive amounts of water used by agriculture, but also render unnecessary fertilizers and pesticides.

Downs also pointed to a food delivery service called Blue Apron as the kind of upstream innovation that can have a positive effect on health. The company sends a box of fresh food to your doorstep, with all the ingredients and spices to cook a meal at home. Not exactly fast food -- but faster food with better nutrition.

"This is about finding solutions for people that are more compelling than the patterns that we have established," he said.

A furniture company like the San Francisco-based Steelcase can have an impact, too, Downs said. The company designs chairs, lamps and tables that are intended to inspire movement, remove stress and improve focus.

Even ride services such as Uber and Lyft, Downs said, might lead to healthier lifestyles if they influence urban dwellers to ditch their cars altogether -- someone who no longer has a car sitting in their garage may be more inclined to walk or bike.

One caveat: Downs said the problem with many of these solutions is they're prohibitively expensive for most people.

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"People who are innovating like this really need to think about price points that are available for the masses, not just the well-off folks in Silicon Valley."

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