Technology can only save healthcare if it connects with and leverages people

Speakers from Fitbit, Johnson & Johnson discussed motivation and behavior change at the Connected Health Conference in Boston.
By Jonah Comstock
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Fitbit Medical Director John Moore. Photo by Christopher Huang.

Part of the value — and fun — of conferences like Connected Health Conference is seeing all the newest technologies debuting in the space, but sometimes tech evangelists need to be reminded of the limits of technology. That’s what speakers from both Fitbit and Johnson & Johnson shared this morning at the show.

“When I started in this space, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about EMRs and how aggregating data was going to transform what we do in healthcare,” Fitbit Medical Director John Moore said. “And then there was a big backlash that this really took away from the human element and how we could work with people. Then there was a big focus on big data and crunching through it to figure out who needed help. Then everybody said, what do we do to help them once we know who needs it?

“Then apps came along and we said ‘Yes! Apps will be the solution. They will remind people to take their medication and collect their data and all of a sudden they will be motivated and we’ll have behavior change.’ And then we found, well, that’s not quite enough. And now we’re entering the realm where conversational agents and machine learning are the next new promise.”

While all those technologies can help improve healthcare, Moore said, they can only do it by empowering humans.

“In the end, technology is not going to solve our healthcare woes. It’s going to help people work together to solve those problems,” he said. “And if we paint that line through the middle, and with every new innovation that comes we can figure out how it can help the people in healthcare — the physicians, the doctors, the nurses — be a bit superhuman in what we do, perhaps we can produce something that’s even greater.”

Moore gave the example of Fitbit’s recently launched Fitbit Care product, which allows employers to deploy a platform that includes both a virtually accessed healthcare coach and a suite of features similar to the Fitbit’s consumer-facing offerings. Early data from live deployments shows that the program can take blood sugar control from 30 percent of a population controlled after a year, to 80 percent after a year — and 60 percent after just a month.

Like Fitbit Care, Johnson & Johnson’s Health Partner platform includes a patient app that’s designed to tap into patients’ intrinsic motivations based on their specific health needs.

“My father in law had a double knee replacement,” Melinda Thiel, VP of customer marketing and solutions in J&J’s medical device group, said. “The nurse said ‘Why did you decide to have your knees replaced now?’ I expected him to say something about pain or medication, but he said to the nurse ‘I want to get back to fishing on the beach with my grandson.’ I said to myself, that’s intrinsic motivation. And if you can tap into something like that, you can really change behavior.”