Software Marks Advances at the Connected Health Conference (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on October 31, 2018 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site ( and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The first part of this article focused on FDA precertification of apps and the state of interoperability. This part covers other interesting topics at the Connected Health conference.

Presentation at Connected Health Conference

Presentation at Connected Health Conference

Patient engagement

A wonderful view upon the value of collecting patient data was provided by Steve Van, a patient champion who has used intensive examination of vital signs and behavioral data to improve his diabetic condition. He said that the doctor understands the data and the patient knows how he feels, but without laying the data out, they tend to talk past each other. Explicit data on vital signs and behavior moves them from monologue to dialogue. George Savage, MD, co-founder and CMO of Proteus, described the value of data as “closing the loop”–in other words, providing immediate and accurate information back to the patient about the effects of his behavior.

I also gained an interesting perspective from Gregory Makoul, founder and CEO of PatientWisdom, a company that collects a different kind of data from patients over mobile devices. The goal of PatientWisdom is to focus questions and make sure they have an impact: the questionnaire asks patients to share “stories” about themselves, their health, and their care (e.g., goals and feelings) before a doctor visit. A one-screen summary is then provided to clinical staff via the EHR. The key to high adoption is that they don’t “drill” the patient over things such as medications taken, allergies, etc. They focus instead on distilling open-ended responses about what matters to patients as people, which patients like and providers also value.

Sam Margolis, VP of client strategy and growth at Cantina, saw several aspects of the user experience (UX) as the main hurdle for health IT companies. This focus was reasonable, given that Cantina combines strengths in design and development. Margolis said that companies find it hard to make their interfaces simple and to integrate into the environments where their products operate. He pointed out that health care involves complex environments with many considerations. He also said they should be thinking holistically and design a service, not just a product–a theme I have seen across modern business in general, where companies are striving to engage customers over long periods of time, not just sell isolated objects.

Phil Marshall, MD, co-founder and chief product officer of Conversa Health, described how they offer a chatbot to patients discharged from one partnering hospital, in pursuit of the universal goal by US hospitals to avoid penalties from Medicare for readmissions. The app asks the patient for information about her condition and applies the same standards the hospital uses when its staff evaluates discharged patients. Marshall said that the standards make the chatbot highly accurate, and is tuned regularly. It is also popular: 80 percent of the patients offered the app use it, and 97 percent of these say it is helpful. The chat is tailored to each patient. In addition to relieving the staff of a routine task, the hospital found that the app reduces variation among outcomes among physicians, because the chatbot will ask for information they might forget.

Jay V. Patel, Clinical Transformation Officer at Seniorlink, described a care management program that balances technology and the human touch to help caregivers of people with dementia. Called VOICE (Vital Outcomes Inspired by Caregiver Engagement) Dementia Care, the program connects a coach to family caregivers and their care teams through Vela, Seniorlink’s collaboration platform. The VOICE DC program reduced ER visits by 51 percent and hospitalizations by 18 percent in the six-month pilot. It was also good for caregivers, reducing their stress and increasing their confidence.

Despite the name, VOICE DC is text-based (with video content) rather than voice-based. An example of the advances in voice interfaces was provided at this conference by Boston Children’s Hospital. Elizabeth Kidder, manager of their digital health accelerator, reported using voice interfaces to let patients ask common questions, such as when to get vaccinations and whether an illness was bad enough to keep children home from school and day care. Another non-voice app they use is a game that identifies early whether a child has a risk of dyslexia. Starting treatment before the children are old enough to learn reading in school can greatly increase success.

Nathan Treloar, president of Orbita, reported that at a recent conference on voice interfaces, participants in a hackathon found nine use cases for them in health.

Pattie Maes of the MIT Media Lab–one of the most celebrated research institutions in digital innovation–envisions using devices to strengthen the very skills that our devices are now blamed for weakening, such as how to concentrate. Of course, she warned, there is a danger that users will become dependent on the device while using it for such skills.

Working at the top of one’s license

I heard that appealing phrase from Christine Goscila, a family nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital Revere. She was describing how an app makes it easier for nurses to collect data from remote patients and spend more time on patient care. This shift from routine tasks to high-level interactions is a major part of the promise of connected health.

I heard a similar goal from Gregory Pelton, MD, CMO of ICmed, one of the many companies providing an integrated messaging platform for patients, clinicians, and family caregivers. Pelton talks of handling problems at the lowest possible level. In particular, the doctor is relieved of entering data because other team members can do it. Furthermore, messages can prepare the patient for a visit, rendering him more informed and better able to make decisions.

Clinical trials get smarter

While most health IT and connected health practitioners focus on the doctor/patient interaction and health in the community, the biggest contribution connected health might make to cost-cutting may come from its use by pharmaceutical companies. As we watch the astounding rise in drug costs–caused by a range of factors I will cover in a later article, but only partly by deliberate overcharging–we could benefit from anything that makes research and clinical trials more efficient.

MITRE, a non-profit that began in the defense industry but recently has created a lot of open source tools and standards for health care, presented their Synthea platform, offering synthetic data for researchers. The idea behind synthetic data is that, when you handle a large data set, you don’t need to know that a particular patient has congestive heart failure, is in his sixties, and weighs 225 pounds. Even if the data is deidentified, giving information about each patient raises risks of reidentification. All you need to know is a collection of facts about diagnoses, age, weights, etc. that match a typical real patient population. If generated using rigorous statistical algorithms, fake data in large quantities can be perfectly usable for research purposes. Synthea includes data on health care costs as well as patients, and is used for FHIR connectathons, education, the free SMART Health IT Sandbox, and many other purposes.


Payers are gradually adapting their reimbursements to telemedicine. The simplest change is just to pay for a video call as they would pay for an office visit, but this does not exploit the potential for connected health to create long-range, continuous interactions between doctor, patient, and other staff. But many current telemedicine services work outside the insurance system, simply charging patients for visits. This up-front payment obviously limits the ability of these services to reach most of the population.

The uncertainties, as well as the potential, of this evolving market are illustrated by the business model chosen by American Telephysicians, which goes so far as to recruit patients internationally, such as from Pakistan and Dubai, to create a telemedicine market for U.S. specialists. They will be starting services in some American communities soon, though. Taking advantage of the ubiquity of mobil devices, they extend virtual visits with online patient records and a marketplace for pharmaceuticals, labs, and radiology. Waqas Ahmed, MD, founder and CEO, says: “ATP is addressing global health care problems that include inaccessibility of primary, specialty, and high-quality healthcare services, lack of price transparency, substandard patient education, escalating costs and affordability, a lack of healthcare integration, and fragmentation along the continuum of care.”

The network is the treatment center

We were honored with a keynote from FCC chair Ajit Pai, who achieved notoriety recently in the contentious “net neutrality” debate and was highlighted in WIRED for his position. Pai is not the most famous FCC chair, however; that honor goes to Newton Minow, who as chair from 1961 to 1963 called television a “vast wasteland.” More recently, Michael Powell (who became chair in 2001, before the confounding term “net neutrality” was invented) garnered a lot of attention for changing Internet regulations. Newton Minow, by the way, is still on the scene. I heard him talk recently at a different conference, and Pai mentioned talking to Minow about Internet access.

Pai has made expansion of Internet access his key issue (it was mentioned in the WIRED article) and talked about the medical benefits of bringing fast, continuous access to rural areas. His talk fit well with the focus many companies at the Connected Health conference placed on telemedicine. But Pai did not vaunt competition or innovation as a solution to reaching rural areas. Instead, he seemed happy with the current oligopoly that characterizes Internet access in most areas, and promoted an increase in funding to get them to do more of what they’re now doing (slowly).

The next day, Nancy Green of Verizon offered a related suggestion that 5G wireless will make batteries in devices last longer. This is not intuitive, but I think can be justified by the decrease in the time it will take for devices to communicate with the cloud, decreasing in turn the drain on the batteries.

Devices that were just cool

One device I liked at Connected Health coll was the Eko stethoscope, which sends EKG data to a computer for display. Patients will soon be able to use Eko devices to view their own EKGs, along with interpretations that help non-specialists make sense of the results. Of course, the results are also sent to the patients’ doctors.

Another device is a smart pillbox by CUEMED that doubles as a voice-interactive health assistant, HEXIS. Many companies make smart pill boxes that keep track of whether you open them, and flash or speak up to remind you when it’s time to take the pills. (Non-compliance with prescription medications is rampant.) HEXIS is a more advanced innovation that incorporates Alexa-like voice interactivity with the user and can connect to other medical devices and wearables such as Apple Watch and blood pressure monitors. The device uses the data and vital signs to motivate the user, and provides suggestions for the user to feel better. Another nice feature is that if you’re going out, you can remove one day’s meds and take them with you, while the device continues to do its job of reminding and tracking.

I couldn’t get to every valuable session at the Connected Health conference, or cover every speaker I heard. However, the conference seems to be achieving its goals of bringing together innovators and of prodding the health care industry toward the effective use of technology.