AMA’s Digital Health ‘Snake Oil’ Claim Creates Needless Conflict

Posted on June 22, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Earlier this month, the head of the American Medical Association issued a challenge which should resonate for years to come. At this year’s annual meeting, Dr. James Madara argued that many direct-to-consumer digital health products, apps and even EMRs were “the digital snake oil of the early 21st century,” and that doctors will need to serve as gatekeepers to the industry.

His comments, which have been controversial, weren’t quite as immoderate as some critics have suggested. He argued that some digital health tools were “potentially magnificent,” and called on doctors to separate useful products from “so-called advancements that don’t have an appropriate evidence base, or that just don’t work that well – or that actually impede care, confuse patients, and waste our time.”

It certainly makes sense to sort the digital wheat from the chaff. After all, as of late last year there were more than 165,000 mobile health apps on the market, more than double that available in 2013, according to a study by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. And despite the increasing proliferation of wearable health trackers, there is little research available to suggest that they offer concrete health benefits or promote sustainable behavior change.

That being said, the term “snake oil” has a loaded historical meaning, and we should hold Dr. Madara accountable for using it. According to Wikipedia, “snake oil” is an expression associated with products that offer questionable or unverifiable quality or benefits – which may or may not be fair. But let’s take things a bit further. In the same entry, Wikipedia defines a snake oil salesman “is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is themselves a fraud, quack or charlatan.” And that’s a pretty harsh way to describe digital health entrepreneurs.

Ultimately, though, the issue isn’t whether Dr. Madara hurt someone’s feelings. What troubles me about his comments is they create conflict where none needs to exist.

Back in the 1850s, when what can charitably be called “entrepreneurs” were selling useless or toxic elixirs, many were doubtless aware that the products they sold had no benefit or might even harm consumers. And if what I’ve read about that era is true, I doubt they cared.

But today’s digital health entrepreneurs, in contrast, desperately want to get it right. These innovators – and digital health product line leaders within firms like Samsung and Apple – are very open to working with clinicians. In fact, most if not all work directly with both staff doctors and clinicians in community practice, and are always open to getting guidance on how to support the practice of medicine.

So while Dr. Madara’s comments aren’t precisely wrong, they suggest a fear and distrust of technology which doesn’t become any 21st century professional organization.

Think I’m wrong? Well, then why didn’t the AMA leader announce the formation of an investment fund to back the “potentially magnificent” advances he admits exist? If the AMA did that, it would demonstrate that even a 169-year-old organization can adapt and grow. But otherwise, his words suggest that the venerable trade group still holds disappointingly Luddite views better suited for the dustbin of history.

UPDATE:  An AMA representative has informed me that I got some details in the story above wrong, and I’m eager to correct my error. According to Christopher Khoury, vice president of environmental analysis and strategic analytics with the group, the AMA is indeed investing in digital health innovation. He notes that in January, the group announced the formation of San Francisco-based Health2047 (www.health2047.com), for which it serves as lead investor. Health2047 is dedicated to furthering the commercialization of digital tools and solutions that help practicing physicians. It also sponsors Matter, a healthcare incubator based in Chicago.