Editor’s Corner—The search for health IT disruptors at HIMSS

wearable smartwatch
Innovative new technology often sounds good but lacks evidence to show it can disrupt the healthcare industry.
headshot of Evan Sweeney
Evan Sweeney

Roughly four months ago, my wife and I brought home our infant daughter. As first-time parents, it was a surreal experience filled with trepidation, excitement and anxiety.

Most of that anxiety came from the very sobering realization that we were solely responsible for keeping this fragile infant alive, and so a good portion of our time was spent frantically making sure she was breathing. On more than one occasion, when she was just a little too quiet, I impulsively climbed out of bed only to find her sleeping peacefully.

Like most of life’s modern-day problems, there’s an app for that. Actually, there are several. The most popular one is the Owlet, a little sock that slips onto your baby’s foot and allows you to monitor his or her pulse and oxygen levels from your phone. It retails for $249, with the enticing sales pitch: “Get Owlet peace of mind.”

Had I come across Owlet during those moments when exhaustion had worn away logic and reason, I would have gladly emptied my bank account in exchange for that peace of mind they were selling.

I’m glad I didn’t. As a recent viewpoint in JAMA pointed out, these devices marketed to desperate new parents may be “innovative” with the “potential to improve care,” but their true life-saving capabilities are impossible to decipher. In fact, the authors noted, the technology could have the opposite effect, producing even higher levels of anxiety over false alarms.

The healthcare industry has found itself at a similar crossroads. There are countless innovative gadgets, software programs and large-scale IT platforms designed to help healthcare providers improve care, engage patients, reduce costs or eliminate patient harm.

These new innovations are called “disruptors”—a ubiquitous term that has infiltrated every square inch of the tech world. It loosely defines any new system, app or gadget that charges into an industry intent on overturning antiquated systems and challenging longstanding, outdated processes.

Some technology fits the description. Uber and Lyft are disruptors for the transportation industry. AirBnB is a disruptor for the housing and vacation industries. They have significantly changed the way those industries operate.

But the term “disruptor” is too often applied to any new mildly innovative app or device, regardless of its impact. That’s especially true in healthcare. We’re surrounded by so-called “disruptors” to the point where it can be difficult to differentiate technology that can make a tangible impact versus gadgets that look appealing but offer little substance.

The healthcare industry is in the midst of sorting those two groups out, and it may take a while longer before any distinct leaders emerge from the crowd.

That’s what I’ll be looking for at the annual meeting of the Healthcare Information and Systems Society conference in Orlando next week.

I’m interested in finding out which technologies are making that tangible impact. Beyond that, I want to see how health systems are using technology in an effective and meaningful way. Artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, mHealth apps and wearables—all those things sound wonderful and many have tremendous potential. But what I want to know is what technology is actually helping clinicians care for patients and where’s the evidence to prove it?

In an industry riddled with self-proclaimed disruptors, that’s the ultimate measure of any new technology. —Evan @FierceHealthIT