When we think of biotech, we probably see petri dishes under micro-pipettes. But what about the Fitbit wrapped around your wrist? That counts as biotech, given the advancements in medical monitoring devices which watch your health for you.
Two Silicon Valley insiders outlined the devices’ future in panels last week. What should you know?
Digital Health Will Include More Medical Monitoring
On Sept. 9 and 10, STATNews hosted the 2020 Digital Health Summit. The virtual-only event invited dozens of leaders from biotech, investment, healthcare, and research organizations to explain how their tech and health interests have intersected this year. What these experts call “medical monitoring devices” came up in a few separate panels. But you might see these devices coming up soon in our state.
Wait, what are medical monitoring devices?
They are devices designed to track your personal health in real time (think of a FitBit, which we’ll come back to, or Amazon’s recent Halo band). They might measure how much you sleep, how many steps you take or even in-depth processes like your pulse over time. What the medical monitoring devices actually monitor will vary. But with the growth of telehealth, these devices might see more application for medical care.
Two notable speakers discussed those applications at the summit: FitBit CEO and co-founder James Park and Stanford professor Dr. Mintu Turakhia.
Turakia also serves as executive director at Stanford’s Center for Digital Health. Both men explained that medical monitoring devices have a bright future. But how the devices will improve (and who will receive them) remains to be seen.
Turakhia connected the devices to overall telehealth adoption during COVID-19. “We’ve seen the pivot to virtual care,” he said, “but we haven’t seen the full pivot to remote monitoring.” As part of the joint Apple-Stanford Medicine study of heart rhythms through Apple Watches, Turakhia did see plenty of adoption. “We had enrolled 419,000 people all over the U.S.,” he said. “We enrolled 25,000 over the age of 65, and many had real hard comorbidities – diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, and heart attack.”
Meanwhile, Park discussed the healthcare additions FitBit made to its typical devices. “It’s not just about the devices,” he said. “It’s about the guidance, the coaching, the content that comes on top of it.” This extra layer of you-centered health insights comes through FitBit Premium, a new paid subscription service launched in 2019. Park touted Premium for its “guidance and coaching” tailored to you and your habits (which your device already monitors).
Park did mention that, though FitBit Premium requires a payment for its benefits, the question of who affords the devices’ help is on his mind.
Despite the devices’ national reach and innovations, Turakhia and Park worry that not all groups will receive their benefits.
“The problem is that the products aren’t facing a wide variety of people,” Turakhia said. He wondered if these tech solutions are the best we can do: “What is the net effect of this, are we actually building the right solutions?”
Park also said that equal access to medical monitoring needs special emphasis. He explained first that FitBit (which began as fitness monitoring devices) launched FitBit Health Solutions last year, to help employers integrate their workers’ health. “What we had been seeing over time was interest from institutions like employers, government, national health plans like United who were interested in buying our devices and distributing them as part of their respective population health-management programs,” he said. Given employees’ ongoing COVID-19 stress, their bosses’ demand makes sense.
This new health bent doesn’t distract Park’s stated desire for equity. “Our focus on the hardware side is more about accessbility and affordability,” he said. FitBit devices can now join dozens of Medicare advantage and Medicaid plans, he added. “It’s really important to us that our technologies are accessible to a lot of different people,” he said.
What About Devices for North Carolina?
For now, nothing recent has emerged to pair medical monitoring devices with NC biotech. BlueCross BlueShield had partnered with FitBit back in 2018 to include wearable health devices for their employees (as other NC employers likely have also). And NC State had designed a wristwatch to monitor athletic performance in February 2020. That research project has continued, according to NC State Associate Professor Michael Daniele. He works with the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering to develop wearable biosensors.
“We are still working on this technology,” Daniele said. “We have initiated a preliminary collaboration with the ECU Brody School of Medicine to start developments of the next-generation of these [monitoring] technologies for patients with chronic diseases, such as kidney failures and endocrine disorders.”
So we can see the beginnings of concrete medical monitoring devices on the horizon. For now, no RTP biotech company has rolled out something revolutionary. But if medical monitoring devices come over from Silicon Valley, they could become wide-reaching. Their designers envision a holistic match between tech and the entire healthcare process. Turakhia mentioned the “disintermediation and reintermediation of clinicians” (teaching doctors to harness the devices’ insights and data) to optimize care. Park also spoke to their scope: “It’s a long-term relationship with your data, your healthcare provider, your health plan, an your employer as well.”