1) Digital health is an umbrella term:
You will not find a straightforward definition of digital health for the time being. Arguably, this is due to the clash between tech companies, health organizations, and medical specialists, where each group has its own definition of what is and is not digital health. Even the FDA had a page for the past few years on digital health that recently evolved in the past month to be its ”Digital Health Center of Excellence,” as the agency keeps striving to figure it out.
Essentially, it’s easier to review digital health as more or less an umbrella term that identifies technologies that overlap with each other. This includes health information technology, telehealth, telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, wearable and sensor-based technology, mobile health such as device apps, data privacy, and more. I do agree, though, with the FDA’s sentiment that digital health ultimately makes health more scalable (by reaching more patients), increases quality, reduces costs, and makes health more personalized by using individual patient data to suit their care.
2) The post-pandemic era is a digital health accelerant:
This year’s events have led to the greatest amount of funding to date for digital health startups and companies. The propositions around remote-based care and telehealth as the future of patient management are tantalizing business opportunities, and we are seeing significant cash flowing into companies with founders creating a vision for the future of care using digital health.
As patients and providers were compelled to engage in telehealth since the start of the pandemic, a consequence will likely be continued use — especially for specific medical checkups and chronic conditions. I think this has been solidified by the number of telehealth companies that have seen their patient numbers explode, and by the increasing adoption of remote tools (including Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure cuffs, blood glucose devices, and weight scales) for patient monitoring.
3) Digital health will disrupt pharmacy:
The focus on getting pharmacists to offer the COVID-19 vaccine as it arrives and performing tests for infections creates an opportunity for pharmacists to be the center for the public’s health needs in the coming year. Companies can capitalize on the pharmacy as the cornerstone of care in the community, and fend off competition from online pharmacies as well, when they recognize the potential of digital tools and services beyond drug delivery.
4) Get with the digital program
As digital health grows in importance across all healthcare segments, and health professionals such as pharmacists are called on to work in this new paradigm, it will be necessary to stay on top of the trend. For instance, this will involve the rollout of connected combination products (smart inhalers, oral medications, and others) that use sensors to track medication adherence, which patients will need help setting up.
Other issues will be digital therapeutics (DTx), which is evidence-based software that can help manage diseases, and may be used with medications. This could include DTx for pain management, depression, or substance misuse, which pharmacists need to be aware of. I also see a time where pharmacists will be involved with remote patient monitoring to track the safety of drugs dispensed and ensure that target clinical endpoints are being met; we’ll engage in telehealth services to get this done.
But knowing how to do all this will be difficult, and I anticipate a need for pharmacy schools and professional organizations to start offering formal teaching mechanisms to train future professionals and onboard pharmacists already practicing, including a mix of certificate programs or continuing education credits.
5) Digital health eventually becomes just health
One of the most challenging facets of digital health is that it seems so daunting for most pharmacists. We regard ourselves as medication experts, but in an era where our medications are undergoing digitization, we need to understand that our roles and responsibilities are subject to change. This includes how medications are prescribed, dispensed, and how patients even take them. We are in an era where data is called “the new oil,” but remember that oil is crude until refined for use.
As such, I see pharmacists as the potential guides or coaches for patients to navigate digital health (since we have the locations and space to house the technology in our communities), and also the specialists for digital health medication use (adherence, drug safety, therapeutic outcomes, and more). Many companies and organizations are realizing this is a role we could fill as well. This is a transitory period I feel we are in for the next decade and then some, where the profession needs to figure out what we’ll do with digital health and then make it our new normal.