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Will Federal Privacy Laws Impede Health-Care Consumerization?

Emerging devices and apps could let patients take control of their health -- if HIPAA will let them.

SAN FRANCISCO — Mobile apps, new devices and cloud computing may soon end the doctor’s reign as the be-all, end-all of medical care by making patients equal partners in the healthcare process. But current privacy laws around medical information could hinder the usefulness of data generated by emerging health monitoring apps and wearables, according to experts meeting at a two-day technology conference here.

Physician David Albert spoke of the rise of digital health Monday during a session at the MIT Digital Summit. Albert, founder of AliveCor, a company that sells smartphone-mounted heart-rate monitors, says technology will let citizens take control of their health, which will change the doctor-patient relationship. Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit Wearables, and Anmol Madan, CEO of predictive analytics provider, joined Albert in a panel moderated by Jason Pontin, the MIT Technology Review’s editor-in-chief. 

“The age of paternalistic medicine — if it isn’t [over], should soon be over. You’re going to be partners with your caregivers,” Albert said.

HIPAA regulations -- created to make health data private so preexisting conditions can’t be used against patients -- are hobbling efforts to use information collected from countless new mobile endpoints, however. “I had a venture capitalist at a medical meeting say that HIPAA stands in the way of more of his medical start-ups than anything else, and I think it needs to be revisited,” Albert said.

The demand for consumer healthcare management ultimately will prompt changes to the HIPAA rules, panelists said, but the immediate future is uncertain. 

Federal laws aren't the only impediment to the growth of digital health -- at least not on the wearable front. Although consumers are interested in wearables, the devices need to mature before they take off as stridently as many expect.

According to Vu, most current-generation products are too bulky and uncomfortable. “We’re very early in the technology curve for many of these projects,” he said.

Still, digital health will grow despite the current hurdles, Albert contended. Rising health care costs will spike interest in preventative measures that are the lynchpin of digital health’s allure.

“You’re going to be more financially responsible, and therefore you need to be more personally responsible. Mobile health solutions, whether they’re tracking your fitness [or] whatever it is, these will empower you,” he said.

Digital health is in its infancy, so there’s no clear path for growth, panelists said. Doctors and software developers are still figuring out its direction. Platform and app development is growing in general, but there are few plans in place to strategically harness these activities.

“We in medicine must figure out how to use this incredible global infrastructure and these new vectors,” Albert said. 

Government Technology asked the panel about the impact state governments are having on digital health. Madan pointed to the California Healthcare Foundation’s efforts to promote digital health adoption. He also mentioned similar efforts in Massachusetts and Florida.