Adoption of digital health is stalling. What is turning consumers off?

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The use of wearable technology has decreased from 33% in 2018 to just 18% in 2020, according to Accenture. (Pixabay)

Consumer uptake of wearables and mobile health apps has stalled.

One-third of U.S. consumers (33%) are not using any digital tools to manage their health. The use of wearable technology—for instance, devices that collect health data such as fitness and vitals—has decreased from 33% in 2018 to just 18% in 2020, according to a new survey from Accenture.

The use of mobile devices and applications fell from nearly half (48%) of consumers using these tools in 2018 to only 35% in 2020.

Use among younger generations dropped even more. Mobile apps went from 63% for those ages 18-34 in 2018 to 50% in 2020, with wearables use sinking from 43% in 2018 to 26% in 2020, Accenture found.

Digital health companies are attracting millions from investors. Global venture capital funding in digital health reached $8.85 billion in 2019, a 6% drop from the $9.5 billion invested in 2018.

So what is slowing the momentum? Growing mistrust in the technology industry seems to be taking a toll, according to Accenture.

Consumers also have rising concerns about the privacy and security of their health data.

When asked what would keep consumers from using chatbots, computers or digital devices for health questions and care, 41% ranked "concerns about my privacy or data security" as the No. 1 barrier. It ranked among the top barriers for 64% of those surveyed.

RELATED: After 3 years of growth, digital health funding declined in 2019 to $8.9B: report

Trust in technology companies has declined significantly, likely due to the proliferation of high-profile stories about data breaches and the misuse of consumer data.

When asked what organizations or people they trust to keep their digital healthcare information secure, consumers ranked hospitals (84%) as most trusted, followed by doctors (83%)—whereas technology companies ranked second to last (45%). Only the government ranked lower, at 38%.

"What this tells us is that citizens are sophisticated enough to think about privacy and security and worry about it," Kaveh Safavi​​, senior managing director, global health at Accenture, told FierceHealthcare.

Health technology companies need to clearly articulate their positions on data privacy to build consumer trust, he noted.

"We see some companies taking overt positions, such as Apple, which talks about building privacy into the design of its products. Other companies are ambiguous or silent on it," he said.

Healthcare providers play an essential role in building consumer trust in digital health tools, according to the survey. Consumers are interested in using virtual care, health apps and wearables but would like to have recommendations from their healthcare providers.

More than half of consumers (55%) say the biggest motivator to take a more active role in managing their health would be if a doctor worked closely with them.

But only 11% of healthcare providers recommend digital tools for patient health management, the survey found.

Healthcare organizations have the opportunity to put in place systems that allow providers to recommend digital services to patients and collect and interpret patient data from these services as part of practice, Accenture said.

Companies like Xealth are helping in this area. Originally incubated and launched at Providence St. Joseph Health in 2017, Xealth is a digital prescribing platform that enables clinicians to prescribe patients digital health tools—apps, connected medical devices and nonclinical services like food delivery—from their electronic health records. 

Big tech making inroads

Despite the decline in the adoption of digital health technologies and waning trust, consumer interest in virtual health services remains strong, especially among younger consumers.

Almost two-thirds of consumers (62%) are open to virtual health and wellness advisories, 57% would choose remote monitoring of ongoing health issues through at-home devices and more than half (52%) would choose virtual for routine appointments.

Younger consumers are more open to virtual care in place of in-person care. Among Gen Z, 41% would prefer a virtual or digital experience with a doctor or other medical professional, along with 33% of millennials.

The survey also found that consumers are willing to receive virtual care from technology or social media companies such as Google and Microsoft (27%); retail brands such as Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon (25%); and medical startups (21%).

These numbers will likely rise as digital-savvy generations come of age, according to Accenture.

RELATED: Digital health funding in first half of 2019 hits record $5.1B: report

Younger consumers also have greater trust in Silicon Valley tech giants, the survey found. Nearly one-third of Gen X (32%) and 43% of millennials trust tech companies for health and wellness services, compared to only 20% of baby boomers.

And Gen Z respondents are more willing to receive virtual healthcare from technology or social media companies (46% of Gen Z compared to 20% of baby boomers) and from retail brands (34% of Gen Z compared to 20% of baby boomers).

The overall survey results don't indicate that digital health has peaked or is declining but that adoption has temporarily stalled, Safavi said.

"What this represents is an expected process of maturity that requires a readjustment," he said.

What will it take to jump-start digital health? 

As the novelty of new technology wears off, digital health companies will need to focus on fundamental issues such as the permissible uses of data and integrating the technology into provider workflows.

"Digital health solutions have to be important to the people using them, have to matter as a part of their healthcare and fit into their lives. The second big issue is that digital health has to fit into the way that clinicians work," Safavi said.

Technology companies also need to focus on building solutions that digitize and track information that is relevant and valuable to both care providers and consumers, he said.

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