This post was written to support the upcoming meeting of the PCHA, the Personal Connected Health Alliance, to be held 11-14 December 2016 at the Gaylord Hotel in greater Washington, DC. You can follow the events and social content via Twitter using the hashtag #Connect2Health.

Have you visited your local Big Box, discount or consumer electronics store lately? You’ll find expanding shelf space for digital health technologies aimed squarely at consumers. 2017 promises even more of them, aimed at helping people accomplish health tasks once  performed in hospitals and by healthcare providers, or tasks not yet delivered in today’s healthcare system.

As I toured the meet-up of CES 2017 Unveiled last week in New York, I had the opportunity to kick the tires on several new digital health products that will be featured at the CES Eureka Park start-up pavilion in Las Vegas in January 2017. Not one of these new-new things dealt with activity and steps; these devices covered a range of medical and health challenges, including 2breathe (a guided breathing program to help the user fall and stay asleep), Ellie (a portable UV LED sterilizer for baby bottles), Happiest Baby (offering the SNOO smart baby sleeper), Oticon (an Internet-of-Things connected hearing aid), PillDrill (a smart medication tracking system), and TytoCare (with a digital stethoscope designed for home use).

Clearly, none of these shiny new things is a wristband for step-tracking. Digital health @retail is going well past the first Fitbit Zip era, now offering technology solutions that address practical health problems for everyday people.

That CES Unveiled event occurred just two days after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and there was much discussion at the press conference led by the Consumer Technology Association, sponsor of the CES, about the implications for the consumer electronics industry under a President Trump. There are several policy wild cards that will be crucial for the industry to see played the right way under the umbrella of fostering innovation: on immigration reform, fair and open trade, patent reform, and fostering a healthy shared economy, among the key issues. All of these serve the digital health industry, as well, which is a growing membership component of the CTA.

Digital health will continue to be fast-growing at CES 2017. Along with the companies I saw at CES Unveiled, there will be several hundred more featured across exhibition halls that will touch on every aspect of health: for health and fitness, baby tech, aging tech, digital sports, connected home, connected car, and a new sleep tech area co-sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation. This announcement was especially timely, given that during the 2016 election season, the American Psychological Association recognized that 52% of American voters were stressed out, often losing sleep due to their angst. So it’s fascinating that some health care consumers without an ongoing relationship with a therapist looked for access to online behavioral health, according to a story published in Motherboard this week.

Digital health @retail is channeled both via traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, online (for physical products with Amazon being the largest single online source for consumer-facing digital health sales, and for virtual services such as telehealth visits with physicians), and, via direct-to-consumer from product vendors. Representatives from all of these sales channels will walk the floor of CES in search of products and services to market to health consumers.

CTA segments digital health and wellness into three segments:

  • Safety and smart living, dealing with personal emergency response systems, home living support, and safety monitoring (a fast-growing segment, growing 58% a year, CTA forecasts);
  • Health and remote care, for personal health devices (to track vital signs and manage conditions), remote diagnosis and monitoring, and virtual consultation (for non-acute health issues); and,
  • Wellness and fitness, with fitness tracking, diet and weight loss tools, and wellness monitoring (e.g., stress, brain health, and other aspects of health).

The most important reason people track their health and fitness is to maintain or improve their physical condition or level of fitness. But in 2016, only one-third of people tracked their health or fitness via an online or mobile app, fitness band, clip or smartwatch, based on GfK’s survey of consumers’ interests and motivation for tracking health.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  In the short-run, a person’s access and use of digital health @retail should not be considered as a replacement for a comprehensive health insurance plan, or a relationship with a primary care provider or medical home. In the short-run, evidence-based digital health tools and apps can help to supplement the patchwork quilt that many US health citizens experience from American health care’s lack of “system-ness” — that is, lack of continuity of care that can result in people experiencing adverse events, complications, or tragically missed diagnoses. These challenges are inventoried by The Commonwealth Fund’s years’-long research into high-functioning health systems around the world. Hint:  America’s isn’t one of them.

Looking to the longer-run future, The Commonwealth Fund has envisioned a concept called the digital health advisor. This is an app that meets the needs of health citizens both healthy and sick alike, recognizing that, in the words of the Fund, “the digital revolution has not greatly affected peoples’ interactions with the health industry.”

As I spend more time with European health systems, I recognize two facets that differentiate them from the U.S.: strong primary care backbones, and much higher spending per capita on social care. While the U.S. allocates much more money per capita on health care, countries whose citizens enjoyed better health care outcomes, and efficiency with lower administrative costs — all while strongly supporting primary care and social care.

The European Union recognizes the potential for digital health to contribute to European health citizens’ individual and collective health. The EU link will take you to the organization’s mHealth Framework for Europe, published in October 2016. As The Commonwealth Fund noted for the U.S., the European Public Health Association (EPHA) asserted earlier this month, “Digital health should not translate the digital divide into further disadvantages and health inequality for some, but rather contribute to closing the gap and better health for all.” A new report from Deloitte also recognizes that primary care providers in the United Kingdom have not yet adopted digital health at scale. This is just as true for U.S. physicians.

The California HealthCare Foundation recently published my paper, Digitizing the Safety Net. Perhaps the most important conclusion in that paper was this observation, provided by Aman Bhandari of Merck and former Senior Advisor to the Obama The White House: “The new sexy is scaling what can work.” In this growing era of platforms that can scale digital health solutions, I’m hopeful we can get sexy back into digital health.

To explore more about personal connected health, check out the Personal Connected Health Alliance conference on 11-14 December 2016 at the Gaylord Hotel in Washington, DC metro.