Inmar Inc. | September 15, 2014

These days, with heightened concern about data security and identity theft, getting people to share their data can be like coaxing a squirrel to take a nut from your hand — you don't stomp your foot or you'll scare them away.

While Inmar's recent study with Novant Health, "Activating Big Healthcare Data to Incentivize Patients and Improve Outcomes," showed that people are willing to share their data if they will receive real benefit in exchange for doing so, I worry that too much information trepidation amid all the media hype could blind people from a game-changing opportunity. Responsible, informed information sharing will save lives.

The rise of health and fitness apps on smartphones, Fitbit health monitoring bracelets and other such devices is bringing about new, unprecedented real-time health data awareness. Other developments are likely to accelerate a new paradigm in health management, fueling the revolution of the empowered patient.

If you've noticed the Fitbit bracelets a lot of people wear these days, those are devices that track such things as daily activity, calories burned, sleep patterns and weight. There are also a large number of health-tracking smartphone apps available for monitoring all sorts of information. Those are just for health fanatics who go for a 10-mile run at 5:30 in the morning, right? Think again.

Apple's upcoming iPhone 6 will have added sensors tailored for gathering health-related data. The company's next operating system, iOS 8, will include a service called Healthkit, which will aggregate data from apps, Fitbits and other devices and display them all in one dashboard. Microsoft is also in the game, partnering with TracFone to offer app-equipped phones to underserved and high-risk populations. The idea is that utilizing ubiquitous technology — like a phone that is always in your pocket — people can track important health information on an ongoing basis that they previously only saw when they went to the doctor.

Is that really a big deal? Absolutely. Reuters news service reported in mid-August that such healthcare heavy-hitters as Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Kaiser Permanente and electronic medical record (EMR) software vendors Epic and Allscripts are all either promoting or developing smartphone health apps, with several working to optimize their interface with Apple's Healthkit. Make no mistake — these big players aren't just trying to get into the mobile app business because it's the cool and current thing. They are moving toward a healthcare game-changer.

The big shift in health apps is a change from disciplined fitness buffs monitoring their stats in a vacuum toward having chronic disease patients capture and share information with their doctor. It's a doctor in your pocket. That is huge.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that about half of all adults in the U.S. — 117 million people — have one or more chronic health conditions, and one-in-four has two or more. If better management of a condition through a phone app makes a difference for only one percent of them, that's 1.17 million people whose lives are improved by sharing some health data through their phone.

One great example of how this can work: Here in Winston-Salem, NC, where Inmar is headquartered, Novant Health is piloting a smartphone app for diabetics. The app alerts physicians to a patient's activity-level changes that may signal something is wrong. It's an early warning system. With it, physicians and staff can call to check on you — intervene proactively in time to thwart a serious episode, avoid a costly trip to the emergency room, and even avert life-threatening situations.

Novant is also working with us at Inmar to utilize the same behavioral analytics tools we employ with retailers to understand shoppers, to more deeply understand patients and their challenges. They are utilizing our analytics to identify ways to make Novant more of a daily partner in managing patients' health outside episodic modes of care relegated to doctor appointments, emergency visits and hospitalizations. We're excited about the possibilities of bringing our powerful analytics to healthcare.

That's just diabetes. Think about conditions such as high blood pressure (61 million people in the U.S.), heart disease (26.6 million people), COPD (3rd leading cause of death in the U.S.), asthma (25 million people) and sleep apnea (23 million people). All are very app-data friendly. So let's pick just one:

The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 50 percent of patients in the United States don't take their medications the way they should. Studies estimate the resulting cost in healthcare services to range from $100 billion to $290 billion a year. That's billion. A 2013 study funded by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) reports that among hypertension patients alone, more than 86,000 premature deaths each year could be prevented simply by optimizing and taking meds correctly.

The possibilities reverberate even louder for people who are newly insured under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The law allows wellness incentives for patient cost reduction as high as 30 percent. That makes an enormous difference for income-challenged patients. Not having insurance is one thing, but with it come premiums, copays, coinsurance and other out-of-pocket costs they didn't have when they weren't insured. In exchange for sharing some data, they can save significantly on those costs and even better, they get to be healthier, too.

The impact to the healthcare system as a whole could be significant, as well. The Urban Institute estimated in a 2005 study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that 15.6 million uninsured, non-elderly Americans had at least one chronic health condition. Active, data-driven wellness programs for those patients could represent a significant reduction in indigent care costs for the American healthcare system as a whole.

So sharing data via a phone app could save thousands of lives and tens or hundreds of billions of dollars a year? That's huge. Why wouldn't everyone want to do that? That brings us back to information trepidation. As we begin this era of health data sharing, it will be imperative to secure the information. One major data breach could be the foot-stomp that sends the squirrel scampering back up the tree. We don't want to wind up begging people for data that could save their lives — we have to take every possible step to earn their trust.

Inmar makes security a top priority, considering we process billions of dollars in pharmacy transactions and 27 million pharmacy returns each year for companies using our Pharmacy Management solutions. The Heartbleed hack behind the recent Community Health Systems data breach is not an issue here.

We're truly on the brink of a new era in healthcare. Let's not stomp our collective foot by being careless. If people don't trust us with their data, they'll never realize the benefits.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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