From scheduling transportation to delivering the news, just about everything has gone digital. And in the past decade, healthcare has followed suit. Patients can meet virtually with providers, AI helps doctors with diagnosing illnesses, and providers can increasingly expand their patient reach without leaving the hospital.

If you’re a healthcare leader, it’s essential to understand the fundamentals of digital health and how this sector has changed — and will continue to change — care delivery.  

What is digital health?

Digital health — also known as “digital healthcare” or “healthtech” — comprises a growing field of technology that digitally transforms multiple aspects of care. Some common examples include text-based conversational AI, mobile health applications, electronic health records (EHRs), wearable devices, and telehealth interfaces. 

Digital health technology developers often consist of clinical and software experts who consult closely with stakeholders — such as patients, providers, and health-system leaders — when designing and implementing healthcare innovations.

Why is so much of healthcare going digital?

Though digital health isn’t a new sector, mounting challenges, record investments, and emerging trends within the healthcare industry have accelerated its growth. 

1. Landmark healthcare legislation 

The passing of historic laws related to health in the past decade not only reformed systemic aspects of care. It also meant record investments in digital health innovation. For instance, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act passed in 2009 carved $27 billion to incentivize hospitals to adopt EHRs. This influx helped foster healthtech development like the industry has never seen before.

2. The emergence of COVID-19 

The onset of this global pandemic inherently surged demand for advancements in telemedicine. And it did so dramatically. One study revealed telehealth visits surged by 78x in April over February 2020. Although numbers dipped since then, telemedicine use still far exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

3. Healthcare workforce challenges 

Healthcare leaders everywhere face monumental challenges in retaining and recruiting talented care-team members. A recent study found hospital staff turnover rates increased ~6% from 2020 to 2021. With hospitals hemorrhaging staff, they’ve had to adopt innovative new digital health platforms aimed at streamlining care-team operations and unburdening providers — all of which can help reduce the strain on the healthcare workforce, meaning more satisfied workers who are more likely to stay on the job.

4. Shifting patient priorities 

People go to Google as their first touchpoint for learning more about basically everything. And this trend has extended to healthcare. Patients can now learn more about clinicians with the click of a button. To cultivate patient loyalty, healthcare providers have had to adapt to the modern digital consumer landscape — investing time and resources into managing web-based profiles, building out more navigable care infrastructure, and responding constructively to public-facing online reviews.

How is digital health changing care delivery?

At the end of the day, patients are consumers. And their priorities increasingly reflect those engaging in industries like hospitality, travel, and retail. They’ll consider dropping a doctor to see a different one if they have to wait too long, report encountering friction when scheduling an appointment, and will shift loyalties if they have a negative experience.

In turn, the healthcare workforce has been more and more burdened with balancing delivering high-quality care, treating more patients, and juggling administrative tasks to keep up with shifting patient needs. The strain placed on workers has contributed to excessive burnout, presenting an existential challenge for the industry

Overall, reducing friction within healthcare can help drive satisfaction for both patients and care teams. And digital health can deliver on this in several ways.

1. Streamlining care team operations

As health facilities seek out digital solutions, providers can become burdened with software fatigue. That’s why some digital health companies like Memora Health create their platforms to easily integrate with existing EHRs and with single-sign-on (SSO) access. This reduces the need for providers to remember new passwords, toggle between applications to view patient data, and pause what they're doing to find the information they need.

2. Cutting down on administrative tasks 

Care teams are not just expected to treat patients by the bedside. They’re also expected to call patients to prepare them for their appointments, follow up with them after visits, and help them manage care at home. Digital health platforms that specialize in eliminating the more routine to-dos for providers give them more time back to focus on top-of-license care. 

3. Intelligently engaging with patients 

Even though people want convenience, they also want it served with a human touch. That’s why leading organizations rely on digital healthcare platforms that leverage AI and natural language processing (NLP) to humanize patient-facing communication. The best programs can help people feel understood and listened to without requiring provider intervention — meaning teams can extend beyond hospital walls to help patients manage care at home.

What does the future look like for digital healthcare?

Digital health has changed in the past few years, and it will continue to transform to meet healthcare’s novel challenges. But what does that horizon look like?

1. Digital health will need to work within existing systems.

The last several years have been all about digital disruption — not just in health, but across every industry. However, when it comes to delivering high-quality care, people still by-and-large rely on traditional institutions. Innovators that address gaps and inefficiencies within the current infrastructure will inherently have more access to patients, more insights into where to solve problems, and more direct communication with clinical subject matter experts — possibly having a larger influence on the industry.

2. Healthtech will need to produce real ROI.

As providers are forced to do more with less, digital health solutions increasingly need to make economic sense. Platforms that address several issues for multiple stakeholders will be more valuable from an operational and fiscal perspective. 

3. Solutions will only be as useful as the data they collect.

Addressing a problem within a sector is one thing. But continuously improving to adapt to and address emergent issues is another. Healthtech companies will need to put systems in place to glean high-quality data to prove their effectiveness — both in a rapidly changing industry and to make sense in the long term.

“There are still so many startups that seek to build entirely around the existing healthcare system … But sick patients are going to require inpatient stays at some point in their journey.” - Vineeta Agarwala, physician at Stanford University Medicine and a16z general partner, Memora Health Care Delivery Podcast

Regardless of the use case, digital health is here to stay. With the advent of smartphones, people have become more interconnected than ever before — it’s no wonder healthcare trends have changed to keep up. And digital health platforms that heal divides, work within the current system, and expand access will increasingly shape care delivery and the industry at large.

Learn how Penn Medicine uses digital health to streamline operations, engage patients, and deliver ROI in maternal health.