This year, the Aspen Ideas Festival was in-person for the first time since 2018. This two-week festival brought together world-renowned leaders to share their ideas and perspectives on the current state and future of business, society, culture, health and the environment. This year’s speakers included household names like Hillary Clinton, Bill Nye, Maria Shriver, and Usher alongside Tulsa’s own Dr. Jabraan Pasha, Associate Professor of Medicine at OU-Tulsa School of Community Medicine, and AJ Johnson, CEO of Oasis Fresh Market. During the first week of the Aspen Ideas Health festival, some of the greatest minds in healthcare came together to share how their radical initiatives are transforming the future of healthcare. According to the experts, these are some changes you can expect to see in the healthcare ecosystem:
1. Shifting Healthcare Away from Hospitals and Clinics toward Virtual Health
The surging need for high-quality, accessible care became painfully evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when traditional hospital-centric delivery systems faltered under the nation’s healthcare demands. In response to this gap, many well-capitalized retail and technology companies are pushing services out of the clinic and into big-box stores, corner shops and patient homes. Walgreens, Best Buy, Walmart, and Amazon are only a few retail giants that are making major investments in healthcare delivery. At Aspen Ideas Health, Rosalind Brewer, Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO, shared the company’s plans to embed doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers into thousands of their locations across the country to provide their patrons with easy on-the-go healthcare access. Patients are tired of inconvenient, expensive, and outright inaccessible care. Big tech is swooping in to fill the gaps where traditional healthcare systems have become complacent. According to Brewer, Walgreens aims to “Consumerize healthcare and bring visibility, transparency, access, experts to people who haven’t had access to great healthcare,” and many tech giants are following suit. Other companies like Best Buy and Google are reaching patients where they live by rolling out a myriad of apps, sensors, and devices to monitor vital signs and safety checks that exchange in-person encounters for remote encounters. In the same way we have seen hearing aids and glucose monitors become available at retail locations, experts expect to see a boom in development and sales of virtual health devices that will make synchronous and convenient healthcare possible.
2. Increasing Virtual Health Investments
As tech and retail giants expand their virtual health offerings, venture capital and private equity firms are seizing the opportunity to support the innovations that will facilitate the decentralization, consumerization, and equity of health services. In 2021, total venture funding of digital health startups doubled from 2020’s record haul of $14.9B to a whopping $29.1B. The “great unlock” that occurred during the pandemic shone a light on the fragility of our healthcare delivery systems. This, in turn, catalyzed the development of virtual health innovations for traditional and new-age health systems to adopt.
The boom in digital health companies going public in 2021, like 23andMe and Doximity, has proven to venture capitalists that digital health startups have a path to major liquidity events. In 2021, 45% of digital health investors were first time digital health investors, further demonstrating that the investment community is taking note of health industry changes to come. Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Juli Yoo shared, “Hospitals are in the red right now, and they desperately need to get labor leverages and reduce their administrative spend such that they can stay above water. There are real urgent reasons why we (investors) need to continue to invest (in digital health)… These problems have tangible solutions that have immediate return on investment” that will lead funds to develop and expand their digital health investment thesis over the coming years. Although veteran investors Juli Yoo, Kathryne Cooper of Jumpstart Nova, and Nina Kjellson of Canaan agree that the virtual health industry and investments will grow over the coming years, the drop in Q2 virtual health investments demonstrates that the industry is not immune to the country’s current economic turbulence.
3. Expanding Scope of Practice and the Introduction of AI Healthcare Robots
As healthcare demands increase because of the country’s growing aging population, the compounding provider shortage continues to threaten equitable healthcare access. Healthcare systems are looking for solutions that allow their providers to skip the busy work and practice at the top of their licensure. Dr. Arshia Khan, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is combating the healthcare provider shortage through the deployment of humanoid robots in nursing homes. Robots cannot substitute human provider care, but they are finding their way into healthcare settings and the homes of elderly people struggling with isolation and loneliness to augment their social interactions and improve cognition. In Aspen, Dr. Khan featured “the world’s first social humanoid robot, able to recognize faces and basic human emotions”, also known as Pepper. Pepper responds conversationally, tells jokes, sings, dances, and leads exercise routines for Alzheimer and dementia patients in nursing homes across the state of Minnesota. Assistive robots, and mobile sensor apps and devices are improving care delivery by closely monitoring patient vitals, cognition, and mobility to alert human caregivers when intervention is necessary. Dr. Khan’s lab also developed mobile AI technologies that help human providers predict bipolar and depressive episodes, prevent pressure ulcers in low-mobility patients, train children with autism to interpret emotions and more. Healthcare providers and systems across the country are implementing virtual health and AI solutions to cut out busy work and optimize provider time. To learn more about the opportunities and challenges of using AI to combat the provider shortage, check out TIL’s whitepaper: Improving Interoperability to Address the Physician Shortage.
4. Improving Health Data and Clinical Trial Equity
Creating safe and effective virtual health and AI solutions is impossible without the collection and curation of equitable and representative data. Improving clinical data collection was another key theme at the Aspen Ideas Festival this year. Dr. Jonathan Jackson, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, shared that “one in five biologics that are approved by the FDA have some sort of differential exposure response on the basis of racial identity alone… although the (referenced) study did not go into other aspects of sociodemographic identity, it is safe to say that rural residents will have a different response, women might have a different response… so there is a huge inefficiency in analyzing” therapeutic efficacy across different sociodemographic populations. In Aspen, Amy Abernethy, President of Clinical Research Platforms at Alphabet’s Verily and former CIO of the US Food and Drug Administration, shed light on how the federal government is supporting more efficient clinical data collection through the 21st Century Cures Act. This act created a framework for patient-centered clinical trial design, improved interoperability so that electronic health records can be leveraged to inform trials and created a guidance for more sophisticated mathematical analysis for studies. New research designs are using biomarkers, genetic testing, digital health devices, and artificial intelligence to modernize clinical trials so cutting-edge therapy can reach everyone more quickly. The Covid-19 Pandemic has pushed decentralized clinical trials into the forefront of therapeutic development. Healthcare systems and pharmaceutical companies are using virtual health solutions to monitor patients from the comfort of their home and assess the effectiveness of new healthcare solutions. Virtual clinical trials are also overcoming transportation and awareness barriers, allowing for more inclusive and representative healthcare data collection processes. Healthcare systems are also using more efficient statistical techniques to aggregate and analyze data from electronic health records and wearable devices, such as smart watches and phones, to deploy clinical trials remotely. All of these changes are broadening enrollment and speeding up access to next-generation treatments that equitably treat patients from all sociodemographic populations.
5. Culturally Competent and Holistic Care
Health deserts disproportionately affect marginalized and underrepresented communities. Moreover, our ability to “meet patients where they are” does not end at physically extending healthcare access. The second critical step requires deploying healthcare with careful consideration to the cultural, racial, behavioral, and economic constraints that keep underserved communities from adequate care. Academic and healthcare systems across the nation are investing in Implicit Bias Recognition and Management training. In Aspen, CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent and NYU Grossman School of Medicine Professor Jon LaPook, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine Professor Christina Gonzalez, showcased The Empathy Project. This initiative produces an interactive curriculum that teaches doctors and medical students how to practice empathy and cultural consideration. The curriculum includes Hollywood-quality films and features actors such as Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Helms, and Danielle Brooks to demonstrate how well-meaning providers can undercut patient care without Implicit Bias Recognition and Management practices.
Providers are not the only ones investing in culturally competent care. Investment groups such as Andreessen Horowitz and Unseen Capital are investing in solutions and services that drive better health outcomes by addressing cultural and behavioral habits. Andreessen Horowitz General Partner, Juli Yoo, highlighted her most recent investment into Season Health, a platform that enables any care delivery organization to prescribe food programs. More and more providers, systems, and investors are considering the social, habitual, and cultural aspects of health treatments to provide culturally competent and ultimately higher quality healthcare.
Are you ready to see your doctor while running errands, engage with AI healthcare robots, or collaborate with culturally competent providers to create personalized tech-enabled health plans? We will see how long it takes for omnicurrent healthcare to become mainstream, but these venture, corporate, and academic investments are strong indicators that patients can expect to reap the benefits of more affordable, accessible, and effective care over the next decade.