You may not know what digital health is. But you’re probably influenced by it almost every day.

If your exercise bike monitors your heart rate, or you use a wearable device to measure your blood pressure or glucose level, you’re part of the digital health ecosystem. Digital health in all its iterations—from mobile health to precision medicine—merges life sciences technology and healthcare delivery.

From fitness wristbands to smartphone applications that can automatically send your electrocardiogram to your doctor, the digital environment is making healthcare more personal, consumer-focused and efficient for all of us.

And it’s not a moment too soon. With people living longer, healthcare costs soaring, and doctors and nurses in short supply, the challenges are greater than ever before.

The DHIT/NCBiotech Partnership

Michael Levy

Enter Michael Levy, co-founder and CEO of Bluedoor, a Chapel Hill-based digital health solutions agency. He and his colleagues envision North Carolina’s Research Triangle as a national digital health hub. So they surveyed the area’s digital health environment last year and published a white paper on the topic—The State of Digital Health in the Triangle.

That got the ball rolling. Soon DHIT—Digital Health Impact + Transformation—was launched by Levy, Bluedoor co-founder Lee Phillips, and technology evangelist Don Turner. Turner, who is chairman and CEO, said DHIT’s mission is to encourage the growth of digital health solutions that can help transform healthcare.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center recognized the synergies between digital and precision heath and became one of DHIT’s earliest champions. Levy and Mary Beth Thomas, NCBiotech’s senior vice president for science and business development, announced a collaboration between the two organizations in late October.

They want to speed the growth and development of digital health and look at how digital technology can support precision health, which incorporates lifestyle and environmental factors into the development of more personalized ways to treat and prevent illness.

“Digital health can change how we deliver healthcare,” Thomas said. “In the future, medicine will be more focused on empowered consumers who are looking for better quality and efficiency from personalized treatments. The combination of digital and precision health provides a multitude of exciting new opportunities.”

Levy agreed. “DHIT’s partnership with NCBiotech will allow us to improve digital and precision health across the state,” he pointed out. “Our combined experience and resources are a real advantage to companies who want to join the digital health revolution here in North Carolina.”

That revolution already has begun, fueled most recently by DHIT’s first annual Digital Health 360 Summit in Durham. More than 150 people attended the November event, representing healthcare provider organizations, universities, patient advocacy groups and digital and technology businesses. The discussion centered on three topics: identifying barriers to healthcare engagement, building healthy communities, and using digital technology to strengthen precision health.

The goal, according to Levy, was to pinpoint problems and systemic gaps that can be addressed by digital health solutions in 2019. “Our measure of success isn’t how many people attended, but rather what level of ecosystem engagement we can generate and what health impact we can produce,” he said.

Tackling Healthcare’s Most Daunting Problems

DHIT will have a lot to consider in the coming months. The digital health community has an opportunity to chip away at some of the country’s most serious healthcare challenges.

That list includes:

  • Lowering healthcare costs—The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predicts that healthcare spending will rise at an average annual rate of 5.5 percent over the next eight years. Prevention is important to controlling costs, and wearable technology that monitors patients’ health could play an important role.
  • Reducing inefficiencies—Administrative expenses account for a large proportion of healthcare costs; some studies estimate that half that money is wasted. Technologies that share patient information efficiently and securely could make a big difference in controlling overhead.
  • Improving access to healthcare—To benefit from new treatments, patients must first have access to them. Yet healthcare availability isn’t consistent across geographic and socioeconomic boundaries. Smartphone, laptop and tablet technologies could make it easier to find doctors, and even enable patients to interact with them remotely. That would lower barriers to access.
  • Increasing the quality of care—Telehealth and virtual e-visits that allow patients to “see” a doctor online could address some of the inequities that result from a shortage of medical personnel. The analysis of large pools of data also could help identify individuals who are at a greater risk of illness, or who might respond best to particular treatments.
  • Making medicine more consumer-centric—The rapid growth of precision health means the development of additional therapies targeted at the individual needs of consumers. Tools like wearable trackers and sensors that monitor those treatments could result in better outcomes—and a more efficient healthcare system.

“When we consider digital health’s potential to improve precision health—and healthcare in general—the sky’s the limit,” said Sarah Imhof, Ph.D., NCBiotech’s senior director of precision health. “It’s exciting to imagine what our healthcare system could look like tomorrow if we take full advantage of emerging technologies today.”