Digital health technologies are slowly becoming a part of many of our everyday lives. Not only are they not going anywhere soon, but the evidence is showing that this area of healthcare is growing at a rapid rate. Rock Health, a digital health venture fund, reported that by the end of 2021, digital health startups attracted a record $29.1 billion in investments across 729 deals for that year. What does this mean for the future of digital health technologies? And how will it affect the average consumer?
Record growth for digital health startups in 2021
The record investments in digital health startups in 2021, totaling $29.1 billion, is even more remarkable when compared with 2020. In that year, digital health startups attracted $14.1 billion, which means that the sector has more than doubled in the last year. And this increased investment will have real consequences for us as consumers because it will be poured into a wide range of new technologies and devices that could help to increase our quality of life and improve our healthcare.
Is the growth in digital health startups a bubble?
Of course, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has driven a significant driver of the increased investment into digital health startups, and this has led some people to speculate that we are looking at a bubble that is due to burst as soon as we emerge out of the other side. In addition, the pandemic is undoubtedly reflected in the growth of telehealth since many healthcare providers moved into this way of doing things to reduce face-to-face appointments. The reality is, however, that telemedicine is here to stay. Approximately three-quarters of patients who use telemedicine plan to continue to do so in the future. And the telehealth market is predicted to reach $185 billion by 2026.
The record growth in digital startup investment in 2021 also isn’t as unusual as it may seem at first since investments have been doubling in size each year since 2019 before the pandemic began. This suggests that there are many other reasons why digital health startups are growing at the rate they are.
Which sectors of digital health startups are seeing the most growth?
Mental health digital startups remain the largest sector in terms of investment. This is being driven by increased integration of mental health services into broader virtual health platforms and direct treatment options available via mental health apps and technology. Increased access to virtual mental health help has the potential to provide preventative care that will reduce the need for people to seek more intensive treatments and increase mental well-being amongst the general population.
Telemedicine is also one of the larger sectors in terms of funding. Not only has an increase in access to telemedicine been an essential factor during the pandemic, but it also has the potential to change the way that medicine and healthcare are delivered in the future. This includes the potential to have more integrated healthcare across providers.
FemTech is another area that has seen a lot of growth. It is a technology geared specifically towards women’s health and can include fertility solutions, period tracking, and pregnancy care. These services have the potential to improve the quality of life of many women and give them greater ownership over their reproductive health.
What does the growth in digital health startups mean for the future?
The increased investments in digital health startups are more than just a string of numbers. The outcome of more money being poured into this area will allow startups to take greater risks and develop a broader range of innovative ideas. This has the potential to completely change the way that we approach taking care of our health and, ultimately, improving our quality of life. So let’s take a look at what we might expect in digital health technologies over the next few years.
Wearable technology, including smartwatches, fitness trackers, and biometric trackers, is one of the “new normals” of digital health technologies. Approximately one in five people in the USA use a wearable device, and this number is increasing every year. Wearable technology already has great potential in personal health, and the applications are likely to increase in the future.
Increased use of artificial intelligence and machine learning will mean that highly personalized health recommendations will be generated from the biometric data detected by your wearable device. And this can be integrated with big health data that can use statistical trends to make recommendations related to susceptibility to chronic illnesses and more.
Connected health devices
Enhanced versions of traditional medical devices using emerging digital technologies will become much more commonplace. An example of this is the rise in the use of continuous glucose monitoring devices in the management of diabetes. The technology driving these is moving quickly towards closed-loop systems that detect the level of glucose in the blood and automatically deliver the correct amount of insulin to counteract it.
These types of health devices can allow people to take greater ownership over their health, increase the convenience of managing chronic illnesses, reduce the number of visits needed to healthcare providers, and reduce the associated costs. They can also allow for greater communication between patients and their healthcare providers by granting them access to a wealth of data related to their patient’s health, which can aid them in making medical decisions and providing the proper support.
Personalized genetic testing
There are now many companies that offer direct-to-consumer personalized genetic testing. These allow customers to send off a sample of their DNA, usually from a cheek swab, for analysis. This analysis uses predictive models to determine the person’s risk of developing certain diseases. It can even tell them how they are likely to respond to certain types of medicines.
Most of these genetic tests use SNP analysis, where pre-determined chunks of DNA that are known to be related to the risk for particular diseases are analyzed. Other companies offer whole-genome sequencing, which can uncover the genetic risk of extremely rare diseases and disorders. Currently, genetic testing isn’t offered as a standard element of healthcare. Still, the results from these personalized genetic tests can be shared with the person’s healthcare provider and may help to give them a greater insight into their patient’s needs.
We have already touched on the growth in telehealth over the last couple of years. There is great potential for telehealth advances to improve people’s access to healthcare. For example, without needing to visit their healthcare provider physically, patients can have the opportunity to talk through their health concerns. This can help prevent potential illnesses from reaching severe levels before the intervention, allowing healthcare providers to give more well-rounded care. It will also help healthcare providers to see a more significant number of patients because telehealth appointments take less time, which will also aid in increasing access to care for all patients.
Telehealth innovations already include video calling and other digital mediums. Still, there is the potential in the future to integrate many of the other emerging digital health technologies into patient care. This could include biometric data from wearable devices and data from connected health devices, as well as results from genetic testing. Put together, healthcare providers may soon be able to gain a much more comprehensive picture of their patient’s health using real-time data while also giving them the freedom to see more patients in their own time.
Virtual and augmented reality
Virtual reality headsets are gaining popularity, although they are still a relatively rare item for a household to own. They are primarily used as a recreational device, but they also have the potential to be a valuable part of healthcare, in particular in the region of mental health. For example, virtual reality exposure treatment (VRET) has already been shown to be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders such as phobias. Exposure is the best treatment for these types of mental health issues, and VRET allows patients to go through the exposure process in a controlled and safe environment.
While we have known about the potential of VRET for quite some time, the growth in virtual reality technology means that this type of treatment will be available to far more patients in the future. As a result, this sector could be worth $34 million by 2027, and it can have long-term health benefits for patients.
Is there a downside to digital health technologies?
The growth of digital health technologies that has been reflected in the record investment into digital health startups demonstrates that this is an area of innovation that is growing at a rapid pace. But unfortunately, this has led some people to have concerns about whether we are ready to go down this path as quickly as we are.
One of the major concerns around digital health technologies is data privacy. There are a few areas in which keeping our data secure is more critical than in healthcare, and this is reflected in the strict GDPR laws that surround our interactions with healthcare providers. The potential issue with digital health is that it could blur the lines of these strong privacy protections, making our health data much less secure than we would like it to be.
Thankfully, alongside the growth in digital health, there is also a growth in technologies that can help to keep our health data secure. And government recommendations, guidelines, and laws will likely extend to the use of health data in digital health technologies. However, since it is an emerging field, there is still much work to do before digital health technologies are integrated more broadly into our healthcare system to maintain strict data privacy.
Another potential pitfall is on a more personal level. Could having too much data about our health be overwhelming or cause us to hyper-fixate? Health anxiety has already been shown to be a contributing factor to health information seeking using search engines, and people with health anxiety may contribute to this behavior. “Digital hypochondria” is something that many healthcare providers are already familiar with, and their practices will need to be updated to take account of new digital health technologies.
Having too much data on each patient could also be an issue for healthcare providers. Not all of the information from health technology will be relevant to that patients’ care, and sifting through it could be something that causes time to be lost when healthcare providers are assessing patients. But, again, this is something that healthcare providers will gain experience and knowledge of in time and learn strategies for how to deal with it.
These potential pitfalls aside, the growth of digital health technologies will march on regardless, and their potential for good far outweighs any issues that go along with them. We, as a society, have learned to navigate growing technology time and time again, and we will do so for digital health, even if there are some teething problems along the way.
To wrap up
The record amount of investment in digital health startups is part of a growing trend of new technology being applied to the most fundamental parts of our lives. We live in a digital age, and the technology that we are beginning to take for granted has a wealth of new applications that can improve our health and wellbeing. This growth is undoubtedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it would be incorrect to assume this is the main driving force.
There has been a steady march towards digital health technologies for many years. Fitbit, for example, was founded in 2007, and the new technologies that are emerging are building upon an innate human desire to look beneath the hood and see our health to a level of detail that we have not been able to before. The future of digital health technologies is likely to affect everything from how we interact with our healthcare providers to managing our health conditions at home. Digital health is here to say, and the growing investment in that area is likely to change the face of healthcare soon.