Wei-Li Shao, President of Omada Health.
At the start of 2023, many digital health forecasters predicted that this year would be one of the most consequential years yet for our industry. They foresaw that we’d continue to forge a post-pandemic “new normal,” adapt to emerging technologies, and––perhaps most notably––navigate an uncertain economic climate.
Now that we’re more than halfway through 2023, it’s time to take stock of the biggest trends that I, and many others, believed would shape our industry’s trajectory this year. Here are three of those trends that have defined digital health in 2023, and the biggest challenges they’ve subsequently created.
1. The Convergence Of In-Person Care, Telehealth And Virtual Care
Traditional in-person care isn’t going anywhere, and telehealth helps with many issues of access. However, I find that neither does a particularly good job of addressing care in-between visits when patients need personalized attention and motivation.
That’s why healthcare is increasingly shifting toward a model that combines in-person care, telehealth and virtual care––digital health solutions that help fill care gaps in between doctor visits. Health organizations like Kaiser, Cigna and Intermountain Health are good examples of how integrating in-person, telehealth and virtual care can produce effective patient-centered care approaches.
Convergence is clunky due to oversaturation.
Health plans, health systems and employers searching for the right benefits for their population often still don’t understand virtual care’s true value or how to evaluate the efficacy of programs. Successful organizations are adapting to the changing model of integrating care delivery and the evolving health needs of their populations by learning how to navigate the oversaturated market of digital health vendors.
Around 13,000 digital health tech startups have been funded over the last five years. Forward-thinking buyers need to be able to sift through the crowded marketplace and identify digital health vendors that demonstrate longevity in the market, clinical rigor and scalability.
2. Buyers Looking To Make Changes On Point Solutions
At least a third of Americans live with two or more chronic conditions, and more than a quarter live with three or more. To deal with the problem of comorbidities, approximately half of organizations currently manage between four and nine digital health point solutions––programs designed to help manage a single condition––at a time. As a result, point solution fatigue from managing multiple vendors is real. The question is: Can this be sustainable?
Benefits leaders want to consolidate, but offerings are too complex.
Around 60% of employers reported feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of managing their benefits programs, with companies of over 100 employees struggling the most. Employees also feel the impact of navigating too many point solutions, which can lead to declining engagement.
To start chipping away at this challenge, benefit leaders can turn their focus to virtual care solutions that drive high enrollment and engagement in the context of a multi-condition experience, particularly for chronic and behavioral health conditions where we find that “Americans with five or more chronic conditions make up 12 percent of the population but account for 41 percent of total health care spending.”
3: GLP-1s Have Reached Public Critical Awareness
Demand for GLP-1 agonists––the buzzy weight loss drugs––is overwhelming health plans and employers alike. This space will continue to evolve as health companies attempt to keep pace in what’s quickly approaching a $90 billion market. Amid our obesity epidemic, many telemedicine and digital health companies, including TelaDoc, Ro, Calibrate and Noom, are scrambling to write GLP-1 prescriptions. Even Weight Watchers is getting in the mix with its recent $132 million acquisition of telehealth company Sequence.
GLP-1s alone are not the answer to everything.
Obesity is the $173 billion problem behind the rise of GLP-1s. These new medications can help those living with obesity lose as much as 15% of their body weight. However, in the U.S., GLP-1s can cost over $10,000 a year per person with employers and payers under the most financial strain as demand grows.
It’s also important to note that taking GLP-1s without comprehensive behavioral support has been found to pout patients at greater risk for weight regain once they stop taking the drugs or engaging in lifestyle modifications. The clinical trials that demonstrated weight loss effectiveness from GLP1s included lifestyle interventions as part of what was evaluated.
Despite warranted optimism around GLP-1s in our industry, I don’t believe these medications alone can curb the obesity epidemic. Many individuals living with obesity don’t want to take prescription weight loss drugs long-term for many reasons, including cost and needing to self-administer injections. While 45% of Americans would be interested in taking a prescription weight loss drug, only 14% remain interested if they hear they may gain the weight back after stopping use of the drug.
If people living with obesity face barriers to long-term use of GLP-1s, and would prefer avoiding lengthy stays on obesity medications, digital health leaders need to prioritize finding ways for members to sustain weight loss through behavior change. Otherwise, we risk spending billions without the ability to scale groundbreaking obesity management.
The aforementioned trends here are, in different ways, contributing to an overarching trend: Declining investment in digital health. But while some may see a problem here, I and many experts see an opportunity. As digital health funding settles down, we’ll likely see course correction in our industry in the form of a Darwinian reality: The strongest will survive.
The most innovative, clinically rigorous, scaled digital health companies that demonstrate sustainable growth and navigate changing winds will be the standard bearers as digital health continues to shape the future of modern care.