The Digital Health universe held its 12th annual gathering in Santa Clara, CA last week, led by Health 2.0’s inimitable co-founders Matthew Holt and Indu Subaiya.

While startups continued to jockey for attention, large companies commanded more of the spotlight as they transition from curious onlookers to major players in the digital health space. Representatives from Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Salesforce shared the stage with unicorns Lyft and Oscar and with startups who had just launched their first product.

What became clear from the three-day meeting was the industry is maturing – and quickly.

Here are some quick takeaways:

1. Gettin’ Real

For those of us of a certain age, MTV’s The Real World was a defining show of our teenage years. Every episode started with the tagline, “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

At this year’s Health 2.0, the speakers stopped being polite and got real. One of Monday’s main stage sessions had startups demonstrate their technology, and expert panelists gave their feedback. At most conferences, tepid feedback is often minimized as not to embarrass the founders. That wasn’t the case at Health 2.0. While I’ll spare the company and founder further discomfort by not naming names here, the feedback was clear – there was no market for this technology.

This showed that the digital health industry has long transitioned from a collection of gee-whiz technology divorced from real world applications, to one where a product has to provide usability and value. To paraphrase Sean Handel, senior vice president of product at Proteus Digital Health, successful new digital health products have to fit into “life flow, work flow and funds flow.”

2. Where’s the Value?

In health policy circles, the term “value” has become associated with the cost of a treatment or intervention vs. the benefit it provides the payer. Recently, that discussion has started to broaden to include value to a provider and value to a patient, and that continued at Health 2.0. Speakers repeatedly described not just the problem they set out to solve, but how others in the system would benefit from the intervention. For example, David Watson, CEO of Akiri, spoke passionately about how the network-as-a-service’s trusted data network would benefit patients, providers, payers and others through increased peace of mind, streamlined and secure access to patient data reduced infrastructure costs.

For those using the traditional definition of value based care, more companies are taking it to the next level. Take Meru Health for example, a mental health startup tackling depression and burnout. In one of their initial contracts, they don’t get paid unless their product is effective.

3. What if Patients Don’t Want to be Engaged?

There’s been a zeal about providing digital health tools that give patients more control over their health. If only they knew what their blood pressure or heart rate was at any given moment, maybe they would change their behavior, goes the thinking. But is that true? A competing school of thought has emerged.

People want less engagement, not more, argued Livongo CEO Glen Tullman. People want technology to handle problems. Nobody needs to be engaged to use a smartphone or Google. (Related: Listen to Glen discuss empowering people to lead healthy lives on W2O’s What2Know Podcast.)

This disagreement reveals a true conflict in the digital health universe, one that I think we’ll see play out for many years to come.

4. Learn to Unlearn

In some sage advice to attendees in the opening keynote address, Rasu Shrestha, UPMC’s chief innovation officer, posed a proactive question. We all come to conferences to learn things, he started. What are best practices? What’s hot and new? Rasu asked what we should be unlearning? Are we doing something that has lost its usefulness? We should all continually examine what we do and why we do things, and eliminate what’s no longer necessary. (Related: To hear a longer discussion of the issue, listen to Rasu on W2O’s What2Know podcast.)

At a conference filled with new gadgets to fill your life with more information about your health, given how busy our lives are these days, learning to unlearn might just be the most important piece of advice shared on stage.


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