Digital health- in the past few weeks we have seen commentary on digital health is dead, that it’s not dead but too much hype.  The Medimmune event Digital Health Transforming Drug Development held yesterday in Mountain View provided some perspective.   The day offered a wide variety of technologies (even with the focus on drug discovery) continuing to show the broad and sometimes unwieldy label of “digital health.”  But a number of speakers offered insightful comments about where we sit in the progression of this new field.

Dr. David Shaywitz (DNAnexus) made the point that invention is not the same as implementation.  The latter is not instantaneous and we will be figuring out over time how best to make use of the new technologies.  I confess that I am a keen listener of the Techtonics podcast hosted by David along with Lisa Suennen, so seeing him speak in person was great.

Dr. Matt Bell, COO of MedImmune, closing out the presentations at the end of the day, echoed similar sentiments.  As he put it, digital health is a whole bunch of things happening at the same time.  Implementing them and integrating them are the challenges.  In his view, there are 3 seismic shifts: (1) big data coupled with machine learning pushing us into new frontiers; (2) reinvention of the patient experience; and (3) disrupters, including new players, on both the micro and macro scale.  One of his analogies was comparing large pharma to large tanker ships, hard to be nimble.  Yet with these big changes coming (or already here), it comes down to the not only the question of how big pharma will adjust, but the whole healthcare ecosphere will shift.

I’ll mention here just a few of the presentations during the day that caught my attention.

Dr. Justin Odegaard from Guardant Health and Riley Ennis from Freenome spoke about liquid biopsy sampling combined with deep learning applications to discover new biomarkers and provide positive and negative predictors for therapy response.  Cell free assays in place of traditional tissue biopsies can provide more material for broader biomarker testing and also save the patient from repeated invasive procedures.

Dr. Sumita Pennathur has been motivated by her own experiences to become a serial entrepreneur.  Laxmi Therapeutic Devices, her current ambitious endeavor, is creating a miniaturized continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump with no traditional needles and about the size of a Hello Kitty sticker to untether her daughter from type 1 diabetes. As she puts it, digital medicine needs good data and this comes from good sensors that can get to data internal to our bodies.  Both her diabetes venture and another, Alveo Technologies, include sensor technologies for biofluid sampling.

Dr. James Mault, a cardiac surgeon and an SVP and CMO for Qualcomm, approached digital health with the following question: Why is it we can pull up our most recent Starbucks transactions online but if we go to the ER we can’t pull up all of our medical records? Focusing on connectivity for data, he overviewed some of the company’s platforms and handed around a patch about the size of a wide Band-Aid that would provide near real-time biometric data.


Just as the day was drawing to a close and after almost 8 hours in a dark slide-lit room, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, perked us all up with a presentation on the use of video games for improved cognition. Originally published in 2013, the technology is now licensed to Akili Interactive.  The start-up is developing cognitive-improvement games for indications including autism, PTSD, ADHD, depression, Alzheimer’s, TBI, and MS.  One game is in Phase 3 trails for AHDH and if successful could be the first prescription video game for therapy.

So, after the full day, I had two major observations.  The first one, on the personal side, was the low number of women represented in the presentations.  The entire afternoon, including 5 start-ups presenting in the Digital Health Challenge, and 5 additional talks, were all men.  While the morning had Dr. Pennathur and a Medimmune presentation from Dr. Bhija Jallal, the keynotes and remaining scientific presentations were men.  I find it hard to believe that there were not additional women in the field who could have joined.  Maybe that’s why I am disappointed that due to a conflict I can’t attend the Women In Bio event “Digital Health: Redefining Healthcare” on September 28, presenting an all-women panel.

My second observation was that although many of the talks were exciting and some downright inspiring, they didn’t really get at the ultimate question of how or if these technologies get implemented in the existing healthcare systems as we know them, or whether some of these depending on blowing the whole thing up (or at least some parts of it).  One presenter went as far as to say that healthcare providers would get pulled in kicking and screaming. Not sure that’s the best route to acceptance, but I do agree that digital health is coming into the industry and everyone will adapt, adopt or embrace with varying degrees of enthusiasm and speed.


A version of this article also appears on my LinkedIn page.