It’s hard to wrap your arms around the term “digital health” these days. Everyone has a different definition – a variation on a theme. There are some unifying characteristics – but it can come down to something digital – data collection, data analysis – and something that touches healthcare, everything from fitness to medical records to drug discovery.
Here are a few sample definitions from my wanderings on the web:
The FDA website states that “digital health includes categories such as mobile health (mHealth), health information technology (IT), wearable devices, telehealth and telemedicine, and personalized medicine.”
Wikipedia (a source that we all look at but often don’t research its origins) posts: “Digital health is the convergence of digital and genomic technologies with health, healthcare, living, and society to enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery and make medicines more personalized and precise”
A 2013 Forbes article characterized it by what it is not “Digital health isn’t the application of a web site to clinical practice. And it’s not the generic idea of social media applied to a disease category.”
The Australian government states on its website: “Digital health is about electronically connecting up the points of care so that health information can be shared securely.”
In a recent interview, Yumin Choi of Bain Capital Ventures said “digital health for me is anything that touches an electronic medium to deliver care.”
Does it matter? I would say, yes. Groupings can help shape outlook and strategy. For example, Rock Health, MobiHealth, and StartUp Health have issued reports on deals and funding for digital health. The outlook differs by what is included under the umbrella. For example, the company Peloton (which makes a stationary fitness bike with digital display) raised $325M in 2017. Should this count in the total deals for digital health? What about GRAIL which garnered $914M in funding? It is certainly using big data and analysis tools toward early cancer detection. But should this be compared to consumer-facing mobile apps for mental health, coaching, or dieting?
Sub-groupings can help. These groupings generally depend on who is doing the analysis and for what purpose. For example, the StartUp Health report created 10 subgroups under the umbrella.
The RockHealth report employed 6 categories under its digital health umbrella.
From the perspective of an IP strategy, each of these sub-categories brings different considerations. I have heard the opinion that patents don’t work for digital health or aren’t worth it. And this belief may certainly hold true for some aspects under the broad grouping. The umbrella is so large that there is certainly not a unified one-size fits all for an approach to IP protection. Further subdivisions and specific technologies merit additional and individual consideration.
Consider, for instance, whether the product encompasses a device, a service, an abstract concept, a method now automated from a previously-existing manual solution, or the use of a natural product such DNA sequences. Each of these has its own individual IP strategy.
How much of the product is easily replicated by competitors and how much is hidden from view? This too will impact what may be patent-worthy (and whether you could even detect infringement by a competitor). Another factor is the life-cycle of the product and its particular features. How fast will it turn over in the marketplace? A patent generally has a 20-year term from its filing date, but patent applications also take some time to go through the review and granting process with the patent office. For a product that will be replaced with a new version in a handful of months or even a few years, a patent strategy may not be able to keep up, and other IP types like trade secret protection may be a better fit.
So, while the digital health umbrella may be a useful catch-all to distinguish these products from other areas of healthcare and life sciences, it can do a disservice when formulating an IP strategy. Subgrouping, or more importantly, funneling down to the particular product, its timeline and associated business plan will provide a more tailored and fruitful approach.