The confusion within TEC/telehealth between machine learning and AI-powered systems

Defining AI and machine learning terminology isn’t academic, but can influence your business. In reading a straightforward interview about the CarePredict wearable sensor for behavioral modeling and monitoring in an AI-titled publication, this Editor realized that AI–artificial intelligence–as a descriptor is creeping into all sorts of predictive systems which are actually based on machine learning. As TTA has written about previously [TTA 21 Aug], there are many considerations around AI, including the quality of the data being fed into the system, the control over the systems, and the ability to judge the output. Using the AI term sounds so much more ‘techie’–but it’s not accurate.

Artificial intelligence is defined as the broader application of machines being able to carry out tasks in a ‘smart’ way. Machine learning is tactical. It’s an application that assumes that we give the machine access to data and let the machine ‘learn’ on its own. Neural networks in computer design have made this possible. “Essentially it works on a system of probability – based on data fed to it, it is able to make statements, decisions or predictions with a degree of certainty.”, as stated in this Forbes article by Bernard Marr.

CarePredict has been incorporating many aspects of machine learning, particularly in its interface with the wrist-worn wearable and its interaction with sensors in a residence. It gathers more over time than older systems like QuietCare (this Editor was marketing head) and with more data, CarePredict does more and progressed beyond the relatively simple algorithms that created baselines in QuietCare. They now claim effective fall detection, patterns of grooming and feeding, and environment. (Disclosure: this Editor did freelance writing for the company in 2017)

In wishing CEO Satish Movva much success, this Editor believes that using AI to describe his system should be used cautiously. It makes it sound more complicated than it is to a primarily non-techie, senior community administrative and clinical audience. Say what you do in plain language, and you won’t go wrong. AI for Healthcare: Interview with Satish Movva, Founder & CEO of CarePredict

 

Telecare – time to sweat the analogue assets, not dump them

Veteran Editor Charles climbs on his soapbox, one more time.

There must have been a moment, somewhere, when a bronze age warrior realised that iron really cut the mustard (and other things) better. Unfortunately, that resulting genetic preference for new over old has left us open to the blandishments of salespeople through the ages, encouraging us to take every opportunity to buy new and cast out old.

And it costs! A current example is the drive by many telecare companies to use the digitalisation of the telecoms network in the UK to encourage users to ditch their analogue equipment in favour of their new shiny digital kit…when there’s no need. The telecare world has of course an honourable tradition of encouraging box shifting – back when I ran a telecare programme at LB Newham, in 2007 the government was encouraged to offer a Preventive Technology Grant to all local authorities. Perhaps the most memorable campaign though was Three Million Lives which, from the outside, appeared to have that one aim. Indeed there must be few telecare consultants who have not at some point in their career opened a cupboard to find the shelves heaving with unused – and sadly in a few cases unusable – kit.

Wise telecare providers will resist the current pressures though – both BT and Virgin have been provided with a wide range of old analogue telecare kit to test in their digital simulators alongside the appropriate digital/analogue converters and, I am reliably informed, it has worked well every time. Some companies, I am told, may not have taken full advantage of these facilities and only tested their new digital offerings, whilst ignoring analogue; I’ll leave the reader to work out why they might have done that. This is important because telecare kit is built to last and whilst some service users will benefit from the latest tech wizardry, most will be completely happy with the older kit – indeed those with dementia may find it impossible to get used to any new kit, providing one more incentive not to change. The original cost of that analogue kit must conservatively be well over £500 million, so it would seem to be a crying shame just to dump it whilst it still works well – indeed with local authority budgets as they are, it effectively would hugely reduce their ability to provide a service for all who want it.

There is of course one potential issue, as no power comes down the fibre telecoms lines, unlike with copper, so the service could fail in a blackout. However I understand that both BT and Virgin are working on solutions to this. GSM alarms, supposedly the future, are also vulnerable; indeed apparently this already happened a a few weeks back when the country suffered widespread power outages, when mobile networks failed in some areas. I understand that many masts don’t currently have a power back-up for such occasions and those that do only last 30 minutes.

So, if you are responsible for a telecare provision budget and a nice salesperson pops by to encourage you to switch out your old, ask them how their old kit behaved in the network simulations when paired with an appropriate converter.

If they tell you anything other than that it went really well, look askance. If they say they haven’t tested their old kit, ask them why not.

Are AI’s unknown workings–fed by humans–creating intellectual debt we can’t pay off?

Financial debt shifts control—from borrower to lender, and from future to past. Mounting intellectual debt may shift control, too. A world of knowledge without understanding becomes a world without discernible cause and effect, in which we grow dependent on our digital concierges to tell us what to do and when.

Debt theory and AI. This Editor never thought of learning exactly how something works as a kind of intellectual paydown of debt on what Donald Rumsfeld called ‘known unknowns’–we know it works, but not exactly how. It’s true of many drugs (aspirin), some medical treatments (deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s–and the much-older electroconvulsive therapy for some psychiatric conditions), but rarely with engineering or the fuel pump on your car. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning aren’t supposed to be that way. We’re supposed to be able to control the algorithms, make the rules, and understand how it works. Or so we’ve been told. Except, of course, that is not how machine learning and AI work. The crunching of massive data blocks brings about statistical correlation, which is of course a valid method of analysis. But as I learned in political science, statistics, sports, and high school physics, correlation is not causality, nor necessarily correct or predictive. What is missing are reasons why for the answers they provide–and both can be corrupted simply by feeding in bad data without judgment–or intent to defraud.

Bad or flawed data tend to accumulate and feed on itself, to the point where someone checking cannot distinguish where the logic fell off the rails, or to actually validate it. We also ascribe to AI–and to machine learning in its very name–actual learning and self-validation, which is not real. 

There are other dangers, as in image recognition (and this Editor would add, in LIDAR used in self-driving vehicles):

Intellectual debt accrued through machine learning features risks beyond the ones created through old-style trial and error. Because most machine-learning models cannot offer reasons for their ongoing judgments, there is no way to tell when they’ve misfired if one doesn’t already have an independent judgment about the answers they provide.

and

As machines make discovery faster, people may come to see theoreticians as extraneous, superfluous, and hopelessly behind the times. Knowledge about a particular area will be less treasured than expertise in the creation of machine-learning models that produce answers on that subject.

How we fix the balance sheet is not answered here, but certainly outlined well. The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking (New Yorker)

And how that AI system actually gets those answers might give you pause. Yes, there are thousands of humans, with no special expertise or medical knowledge, being trained to feed the AI Beast all over the world. Data labeling, data annotation, or ‘Ghost Work’ from the book of the same name, is the parlance, includes medical, pornographic, commercial, and grisly crime images. Besides the mind-numbing repetitiveness, there are instances of PTSD related to the images and real concerns about the personal data being shared, stored, and used for medical diagnosis. A.I. Is Learning from Humans. Many Humans. (NY Times)

News roundup: docs dim on AI without purpose, ‘medtail’ a mall trend, CVS goes SDH, Kvedar to ATA, Biden ‘moonshot’ shorts out, and Short Takes

Docs not crazy about AI. And Dog Bites Man. In Medscape‘s survey of 1,500 doctors in the US, Europe, and Latin America, they are skeptical (49 percent-US) and uncomfortable (35 percent-Europe, 30 percent-Latin America). Only 20 percent fess up to actually using an AI application, and aren’t crazy about voice tech even at home. Two-thirds are willing to take a look at AI-powered tech if it proves to be better than humans at diagnosis, but only 44 percent actually believe that will happen. FierceHealthcare

This dim view, in the estimation of a chief analytics and information officer in healthcare, Vikas Chowdhry, is not the fault of AI nor of the doctors. There’s a disconnect between the tech and the larger purpose. “Without a national urgency to focus on health instead of medical care, and without scalable patient person-centered reforms, no technology will make a meaningful impact, especially in a hybrid public goods area like health.” The analogy is to power of computing–that somehow when we focused behind a goal, we were able to have multiple moon missions with computing equivalent to a really old smartphone, but now we send out funny cat videos instead of being on Mars. (And this Editor growing up in NJ thought the space program was there to market Tang orange drink.) HIStalk.

Those vacant stores at malls? Fill ’em with healthcare clinics! And go out for Jamba Juice after! CNN finally caught up with the trend, apparent on suburbia’s Boulevards and Main Streets, that clinics can fill those mall spots which have been vacated by retail. No longer confined to ‘medical buildings’, outpatient care is popping up everywhere. In your Editor’s metro area, you see CityMDs next to Walmarts, Northwell Health next to a burger spot, a Kessler Health rehab clinic replacing a dance studio, and so on. The clever name for it is ‘medtail’, and landlords love them because they sign long leases and pay for premium spots, brighten up dim concourses, and perhaps stimulate food court and other shopping traffic. Of course, CVS and Aetna spotted this about years ago in their merger but are working expansion in the other direction with expanding CVS locations and on the healthcare side, testing the addition of social determinants of health (SDH) services via a pilot partnership, Destination: Health with non-profit Unite Us to connect better with community services. This is in addition to previous affordable housing investments and a five-year community health initiative. Forbes, Mobihealthnews

ATA announces Joseph Kvedar, MD, as President-Elect. Dr. Kvedar was previously president in 2004-5 and replaces John Glaser, PhD, Executive Senior Advisor, Cerner. He will remain as Vice President of Connected Health at Partners HealthCare and Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School. A question mark for those of us in the industry is his extensive engagement with October’s Connected Health Conference in Boston, one of the earliest and now a HIMSS event. ATA’s next event is ATA2020 3-5 May 2020 in Phoenix–apparently no Fall Forum this year.

The Biden Cancer Initiative has shut down after two years in operation. This spinoff of the White House-sponsored ‘moonshot’ initiative was founded after the death of Beau Biden, son of Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden. Both Mr. Biden and wife Jill Biden withdrew due to ethics concerns in April. According to Fortune, the nonprofit had trouble maintaining momentum without their presence. However, the setup invited conflict of interest concerns. The Initiative engaged and was funded by pharmas and other health tech companies, directly for Initiative support but mainly for indirect pledges to fund research. Most of these organizations do business with Federal, state and local governments. Shortly after the formal announcement, Mr. Biden the Candidate announced a rural health plan to expand a federal grant program to include rural telehealth for mental health and specialized services. Politico   But isn’t that already underway with the FCC’s Connected Care Pilot Program, coming to a vote soon? [TTA 20 June]

And…Short Takes

  • Philips Healthcare bought Boston-based patient engagement/management start-up Medumo. Terms not disclosed. CNBC
  • London’s Medopad launched with Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust (RWT) in a three-year RPM deal. DigitalHealthNews
  • Parks Associates’ Connected Health Summit will be again in San Diego 27-29 August with an outstanding lineup of speakers. More information and registration here.

And in other news, Matt Hancock holds tight to his portfolio as UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the newly formed Government under new PM Boris Johnson. Luckier than the other 50 percent!

 

 

Health tech bubble watch: Rock Health’s mid-2019 funding assessment amid Big IPOs (updated: Health Catalyst, Livongo, more)

Updated for IPOs and analysis. The big time IPOs add extra bubbles to the digital health bath. Rock Health’s mid-year digital health market update continues its frothy way with a topline of $4.2 bn across 180 deals invested in digital health during the first half of 2019. 2019 is tracking to last year’s spending rate across fewer deals and is projected to end the year at $8.4 bn and 360 deals versus 2018’s $8.2 bn and 376 deals.

This year has been notable for Big IPOs, which have been absent from the digital health scene for three years. Exits come in three flavors: mergers and acquisitions (43 in their count so far), IPOs, and shutdowns (like Call9). IPOs are a reasonable outcome of last year’s trend of mega deals over $100 million and a more direct way for VCs to return their money to investors. So far in 2019, 30 percent of venture dollars went to these mega deals. (Rock Health tracks only US digital health deals over $2 million, so not a global picture.)

Reviewing the IPOs and pending IPOs to date:

  • Practice intake and patient management system Phreesia closed its NYSE IPO of 10.7 million shares at $18 per share on 22 July. The company earned approximately $140.6 million and the total gross proceeds to the selling stockholders were approximately $51.6 million for a value over $600 million. The market cap as of 26 July exceeded $949 million with shares rising past $26. Not bad for a company that raised a frugal $92.6 million over seven rounds since 2005.  Yahoo Finance, Crunchbase
  • Chronic condition management company Livongo’s picture is frothier. Their 22 July SEC filing has their IPO at 10.7 million shares at $24 to $26 per share offered on NASDAQ. This would total a $267.5 million raise and a $2.2 bn valuation. This is a stunning amount for a company with reportedly $55 million at the end of its most recent reporting period, increasing losses, and rising cash burn. Livongo raised $235 million since 2014 from private investors. Crunchbase 
  • Analytics company Health Catalyst’s IPO, which will probably take place this week on NASDAQ with Livongo’s, expects to float 7 million shares. Shares will be in a range of $24 to $25 with a raise in excess of $171 million. Their quarterly revenue is above $35 million with an operating loss of $9.8 million. Since 2008, they’ve raised $377 million. IPO analysts call both Livongo’s and Health Catalyst’s IPOs ‘essentially oversubscribed’. Investors Business Daily, Crunchbase
    • UPDATE: Both Livongo and Health Catalyst IPOs debuted on Thursday 25 July, with Livongo raising $356 million on an upsized 12.7 million shares at $28/share, while Health Catalyst’s 7 million shares brought in $182 million at $26/share.  Friday’s shares closed way up from the IPOs Livongo at $38.12 and $38.30 for Health Catalyst. Bubbly indeed! Investors Business Daily, Yahoo Finance
  • Change Healthcare is also planning a NASDAQ IPO at a recently repriced $13 per share, raising $557.7 million from 42.8 million shares. With the IPO, Change is also offering an equity raise and senior amortizing note to pay off its over $5 bn in debt. The excruciating details are here. Investors here are taking a much bigger chance than with the above IPOs, but the market action above will be a definite boost for Change.
  • Connected fitness device company Peloton, after raising $900 million, is scheduled to IPO soon after a confidential SEC filing. (UPDATED–Ed. Note: Included as in the Rock Health report; however this Editor believes that their continued inclusion of Peleton in digital health is specious and should be disregarded by those looking at actual funding trends in health tech.) Forbes

Rock Health itself raised the ‘bubble’ question in considering 2018 results. Their six points of a bubble are:

  1. Hype supersedes business fundamentals
  2. High cash burn rates
  3. High valuations decoupled from fundamentals
  4. Surge of cash from new investors
  5. Fraud or misuse of funds
  6. Unclear exit pathways

This Editor’s further analysis of these six points [TTA 21 Jan] wasn’t quite as reassuring as Rock Health’s. As in 2018, #2, #3, and #6 are rated ‘moderately bubbly’ with even Rock Health admitting that #2 had some added froth. #3–high valuations decoupled from fundamentals–is, in this Editor’s experience, the most daunting, as as it represents the widest divergence from reality and is the least fixable. The three new ‘digital health unicorns’ they cite are companies you’ve likely never heard of and in ‘interesting’ but not exactly mainstream niches in health tech except, perhaps, for the last: Zipline (medicine via drone to clinics in Rwanda and Ghana), Gympass (corporate employee gym passes), and Hims (prescription service and delivery).

Editor’s opinion: When there are too many companies with high valuations paired with a high ‘huh?’ quotient (#3)–that one is slightly incredulous at the valuation granted ‘for that??’–it’s time to take a step back from the screen and do something constructive like rebuild an engine or take a swim. Having observed or worked for companies in bubbles since 1980 in three industries– post-deregulation airlines in the 1980s, internet (dot.com) from the mid-1990s to 2001, first stage telecare/telehealth (2006-8), and healthcare today (Theranos/Outcome Health), a moderate bubble never, ever deflates–it expands, then bursts. The textbook #3 was the dot.com boom/bust; it not only fried internet companies but many vendors all over the US and kicked off a recession.

Rock Health also downplayed #5, fraud and misuse of funds. It’s hard to tell why with troubles around uBiome, Nurx, and Cleo in the news, Teladoc isn’t mentioned, but their lack of disclosure for a public company around critical NCQA accreditation only two months ago and their 2018 accounting problems make for an interesting omission [TTA 16 May]. (And absurdly, they excluded Theranos from 2018’s digital health category, yet include drones, gym passes, connected fitness devices…shall we go on?)

Rock Health’s analysis goes deeper on the private investment picture, particularly their interesting concept of ‘net liquidity overhang’, the amount of money where investors have yet to realize any return, as an indicator of the pressure investors have to exit. Pressure, both in healthcare and in early-stage companies, is a double-edged sword. There’s also a nifty annual IPO Watch List which includes the five above and why buying innovation works for both early-stage and mature healthcare companies. 

(Editor’s final note: The above is not to be excessively critical of Rock Health’s needed analysis, made available to us for free, but in line with our traditionally ‘gimlety’ industry view.)

Care Technology Landscape Review: Socitm Advisory for Essex County Council (UK)

A independent report on the UK care technology market was released earlier this month which has both UK and international implications. Commissioned by Essex County Council and produced by Socitm Advisory, it is must reading for those engaged in the procurement and development of local care technology. In a wider sense, the study is part of a larger international trend around community-based health and wellbeing, data utilization and digital tools to promote self-care, mitigate acute illness, and better management of chronic conditions, including social determinants of health (SDH). Digital tools are integrated into care and measured on enabling outcomes, versus being ends in themselves as they tend to be today.

The envisioned emerging care technology solutions framework looks like this: Adrian Scaife of Alcuris Ltd was kind enough to send a link and review copy of this study to this Editor, the link which we are pleased to provide to our Readers. (Download it from Socitm’s website.) He has written a blog post in HousingLIN, Is it time for the next generation of telecare?, which provides a more detailed analysis of the 52-page study and its implications. 

A measured look at the uncertainty around the CVS-Aetna merger

Within two to three weeks, we will know whether Judge Richard Leon of the Federal District Court will–or can–block the CVS-Aetna merger. Already a fait accompli, the merger itself would have to unwound if this is the decision–and uncertainty reigns on whether this actually can be done, as the companies have been merged for several months and have divested what DOJ requested (e.g. PDP to WellCare).

The CVS-Aetna vision is for HealthHubs–combined stores, data, MinuteClinics, kiosks, and the retail business, ultimately combined at a macro level with pharmacy benefit management, external data, and also Aetna’s insurance business. While the HealthHubs are in test, the reach of CVS on both the national and local/individual levels will be huge, if only starting with the data and analytics side. And the retail side is no slouch. Their growth on the retail pharmacy side has been over three times the industry.

In the prescription drug plan (Medicare PDP) market, that horse already left the barn. 70 percent of the PDP market is controlled by three companies: CVS Health, Express Scripts (Cigna), and Optum (UnitedHealth Group). The concerns expressed at the hearings about premiums rising and reduction of competition has already largely happened, with a market not truly private and highly restricted.

Uncertainty may very well be the theme of the rest of the year as it has been since last fall. The smart money is betting that Judge Leon will block the merger on anti-competitive grounds, leading to another round of court actions. Both companies are healthy and will fight it. If forced to part, the  Seeking Alpha analyst bets on CVS doing just fine long term, which leaves little in choices for Aetna with its way forward in merging with other insurers blocked.

EHR system-generated emails/inbasket messages contributing to burnout in 36% of doctors: study

That crispy feeling is real. Unlike the overflowing paper forms, charts, and faxes of olden days (!), doctors and clinical staff now not only deal with paper, but also with what physicians call their ‘electronic masters’. The volume is astounding and has led to numerous studies of physician burnout. One of the latest has been published in Health Affairs (free access), a directional study which will not cheer up anyone concerned with doctor health and retention in the field.

A study of over 900 physicians at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation found that almost half (114, 47 percent) of the 243 weekly in-basket messages received per physician, on average, were algorithmically generated out of their Epic EHR. This far exceeded emails from colleagues (53), from themselves (31, e.g. reports), and patients (30). Other findings from the study:

  • 36 percent of the physicians reported burnout symptoms
  • 29 percent intended to reduce their clinical work time in the upcoming year
  • 45 percent with burnout symptoms received greater-than-average numbers of weekly EHR-generated in-basket messages
  • Receiving more than the average number of system-generated in-basket messages was associated with 40 percent higher probability of burnout and 38 percent higher probability of intending to reduce clinical work time
  • EHR message volume was highest for internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics

While this is only one group of physicians in one location, and limited by specialties,this excerpt from the concluding discussion tends to say nearly all:

Therefore, both perceived and realized loss of autonomy over their work schedules could leave physicians feeling defeated, even though some of these system-generated messages have been shown to improve certain processes of care for patients with chronic illnesses.

Health care organizations need to reconsider some of their approaches to improving the quality of care and population health. Physicians might not be the most appropriate recipients of some system-generated messages. Payers and government regulators may need to be part of the solution in enabling physicians to practice at the top of their license. EHR design engineers also need to reconsider whether system-generated automatic messages are the best way to ensure quality of care. It may be time to examine whether every reminder to order routine chronic disease management lab tests (for example, periodic glycosylated hemoglobin A1c tests) must be signed and placed by a physician.

Health care organizations may benefit from engaging with their physicians in creating optimal policies on email work, in addition to helping them with such work. (e.g delegation to non-physician clinicians–Ed.)

Add to that phone calls and endless prior authorizations from insurers–should we have a ‘Be Kind To Your Doctor Week’? Hat tip to HIStalk.

The GreatCall Lively Mobile Plus Federal District Court lawsuit–and TTA

Eight emails and two comments later, your Editor wonders why the full court press on TTA. Our Readers may have noted that at the end of our last article on Best Buy [TTA 25 June] and their expansion into digital health, there was a brief reference to a recall of their subsidiary GreatCall’s Lively Mobile Plus and a related lawsuit:

This is not without pitfalls. Earlier this month, Best Buy was sued for a defect found in its GreatCall Lively MobilePlus mobile PERS that in action failed to detect falls as described, after GreatCall discontinued the device in mid-May in what a letter from their CEO David Inns described as an “important safety recall,” offering buyers a Jitterbug flip phone or a full refund. 

The link above was to a fairly comprehensive 3 June article in Mobihealthnews on a Federal District Court-Central District of California class action lawsuit filed by firm Bisnar Chase on 22 May on behalf of plaintiff Scott Barnes of San Luis Obispo, California (document via Mobihealthnews).

  • Mr. Barnes purchased the device on 21 April.
  • In early May, Mr. Barnes fell twice but the device did not detect the fall and automatically alert emergency services. Mr. Barnes is a disabled veteran and relied on the device to detect falls. The lawsuit states that he suffered unspecified damages as a result.
  • In a letter from David Inns as we noted above, GreatCall notified purchasers/subscribers dated 15 May (letter) that it was recalling all devices. It acknowledged fault in a quality issue. It also asked customers to stop using the device immediately and return it for a full refund plus additional considerations.

More on this is from a Morning Call (Allentown PA) article (picked up from the San Diego Union-Tribune) provided by Mr. Barnes to this Editor. It makes the cogent point that the device as a PERS did not require FDA 510(k) clearance. Fall detection does not fall under Class I or II medical device regulation as it does not monitor vital signs.

Mr. Barnes has written five separate emails to this Editor within less than ten minutes, with another three after our reply. Obviously, this matter is important to him. Moreover, our email is public and we welcome direct contact (including confidential contact) from our Readers with pertinent information. We also welcome comments on articles and don’t mind it being lively.

However, there were two comments at the end of our earlier article on Best Buy’s acquisition of Critical Signal Technologies that are, in the opinion of this Editor, marginal. One from ‘Scott’ implied that there was a relationship between this publication and Best Buy: “What is your companies relationship with the Recalled Great Call/Best Buy Mobile Lively Plus defective device that is now under a Federal Legal Action and Lawsuits.” (My answer was, of course, is that we report on these two companies, and other than that, have no relationship.) The other from ‘Kennie’ was phrased as ‘Be Warned’ and made certain assertions about the device and the company which have yet to be proved in court. This was published with some trepidation.

We ask commenters to be respectful of other Readers, of the facts, and understand that we report–and comment–as we see it.

SNF emergency telehealth provider Call9 shuts down most operations, after $34M raise (updated)

Is it a symptom of a bubble’s downside? In an interview with CNBC, Dr. Timothy Peck, the CEO of Call9, profiled in TTA only a month ago, confirmed that his company will be shutting down operations. Call9 provided embedded emergency first responders in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) on call to staff nurses. The first responders not only could provide immediate care to patients with over a dozen diagnostic tools, but also would connect via video to emergency doctors on call. 

Headquartered in Brooklyn, the shuttering of the four-year-old company has laid off over 100 employees as it winds down operations. They claimed 142,000 telemedicine visits and 11,000 patients who were treated via its services. In the past few months, Call9 had inked deals with Lyft for patient transportation and was expanding to Albany NY. They also operated a community paramedicine division utilizing their emergency doctor network.  

This Editor can now reveal that through a reliable industry source, I was informed of Call9’s difficulties earlier this month. Not wanting to ‘run with a rumor’, I contacted Dr. Peck. He confirmed to me information that later appeared in the CNBC article: that the company was refining its model in the face of a change in previous funders and working with some new partners to stay in a model with embedded clinical care specialists in nursing homes. While they would scale back, they still had current contracts. However, the changes in their model would mean that the company would be in a ‘bit of a stealth mode’. After we discussed the business situations that most early-stage health tech companies have faced with funding, we agreed to touch base in a few weeks when things developed.

CNBC, with a different source, had essentially the same information from Dr. Peck on the winding down of the company but in this case also confirmed layoffs, including a ‘pivot’ of the company into a different model around technology in nursing homes. They also confirmed that a part of the company, Call9 Medical, will remain in operations.

Update: Skilled Nursing News had additional detail on Call9’s partnerships which included SNF providers Centers Health Care, CareRite, and the Archdiocese of New York’s long-term care arm, ArchCare. Their first client was Central Island Healthcare, where Dr. Peck lived for three months testing the model. The article goes on with Central Island’s executive director explaining that he is now seeking a telemedicine provider, as they adjusted their services to Call9’s capabilities.

Payer providers included Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Healthfirst, plus some Medicare Advantage plans, splitting the savings from avoiding unnecessary ER admissions. Another appeal made by the company for its services was to keep in place higher acuity–sicker–patients in SNFs who would otherwise have to go into the hospital.

As our Readers know, these pages have covered the comings and goings of many health tech and app companies. Some succeed on their own, are acquired/combined with others and go on in different form, or are bought out at their peak, leaving their founders and some employees cheerful indeed. On the other hand, and far more common: the demise of some is understandable, others regrettable, and nearly none of them are cause for celebration in our field–Theranos and Outcome Health being exceptions. This Editor has been a marketing head of two of them (now deceased except for their technology, out there somewhere), and has discussed marketing, funding, and business models with more startups and early-stage companies than she can count.

If anything, investors have less patience than they did back in the Grizzled Pioneer period of the early 2000s, when a $5 million round put together from a few personally (more…)

CVS-Aetna merger will run off the tracks in Federal court: reports

Reports emerging this past Monday after the close of last week’s DC Federal District Court hearings in indicate that the CVS-Aetna merger may be nixed by Judge Richard Leon. This may result in the full unwinding of the already-closed merger, a derailing of the settlement which involved selling the Aetna Medicare Part D business to government-plan insurer WellCare, or something in between.

The original report was in Monday’s New York Post. A source working with CVS and Aetna stated “I think Leon rules against us. If he rejects the settlement, we would have to figure out the next steps.” That settlement is significant because it represents the only major overlap between the CVS and Aetna businesses. In other words, there’s nothing left to divest or concede.

Judge Leon, based on reports, was consistently irritated with the Department of Justice, questioning everything from the Part D divestiture to the effects of adding 21 million Aetna customers to CVS’s pharmacy benefits management (PBM) business not being revealed in DOJ documents to him. Conversely, the sale of the Part D business to WellCare was batted one way–as not enough to reduce CVS’ market control and not competitive–and then the other, as WellCare remains a CVS PBM customer for 2.2 million members in its health plans. What was also clear from his selection of expert witnesses that Judge Leon was more interested in the anti-competitive effects of the merger than any of the benefits.

It is obvious both from Judge Leon’s in-court actions (such as not permitting DOJ attorneys to cross-examine any witnesses), assorted remarks, and delay for now over six months, that this merger is coming to a pre-ordained conclusion, at least by this judge. This is already a first under the Tunney Act enacted in 1974. A negative decision will certainly be appealed by CVS-Aetna and DOJ, which will drag out any finalization even if successful–and the sale of the Part D business, important to WellCare as part of its own pending acquisition by Centene–to the end of the year and possibly beyond.

With this background and oral arguments delayed until 17 July, according to Judge Leon, the legal teams on all sides won’t have much of a summer.  Also Barrons, video on NBR.

Digital health: why is it a luxury good in a world crying for health as a commodity?

Why digital health still struggles to find its stride. Those of us in the healthcare field, especially Grizzled Pioneers, have been wondering for the past decade why Digital Health’s Year is always Next Year. Or Next Decade. 

Looking back only to 2000, we’ve had 9-11, a dot-com bust, a few years in between when the economy thrived and the seed money started to pollinate young companies, a prolonged recession that killed off many, and now finally a few good economic years where money has flooded into the sector, to good companies and those walking the fine line of mismanagement or fraud. We’ve seen the rise/fall/rise of sensors, wearables, and remote monitoring, giants like Google and Microsoft out and back in, the establishment of EHRs, acceptance by government and private payers, quite a bit of integration, and more. All one has to look is at the investment trends breaking all records, with funding rounds of over $10 million raising barely a notice–enough to raise fears of a bubble. Then there’s another rising tide–that of cyberattack, ransomware, insider and outsider hacking.

Is it this year? It may not be. Despite the sunshine, interoperability holds it all back. Those giant EHRs–Cerner, Epic, Athenahealth, Allscripts–are largely walled gardens and so customized by provider application that they barely are able to talk to their like systems. There are regional health exchanges such as New York’s SHIN-NY, Maryland’s CRISP, and others, but they are limited in scope to their states. The VA’s VistA, the granddaddy of the integrated system, died of old age in its garden. Paul Markovich, CEO of Blue Shield of California cites the lack of interoperability and being able to access their personal health data as a major barrier to both patients and to the large companies who want to advance AI and need the data for modeling. (China and its companies, as we’ve noted, neatly solve this problem by force. [TTA 17 Apr]) Apple is back in with Health Records, but Mr. Markovich estimates it may take 10 years to gather the volume of data it needs to establish AI modeling. Some wags demand that Apple buy Epic, as if Epic was up for sale. BSC, like others, is testing interoperability workarounds like Notable, Ooda Health, and Manifest MedEx. Mr. Markovich cites interoperability and scaling as reasons why healthcare is expensive. CNBC

And what about those thriving startups? Hold on. During the Google Cloud/Rock Health 3 June event, one of the panelists–from Partners HealthCare, which works both side of the street with Pivot Labs–noted that hospitals have figured out their own revenue models, and co-development with hospitals is key. Even if validated, not every tech is commercially ready or lowers cost. And employers are far worse than hospitals at buying in because they ultimately look at financial value, even if initially they adopt for other reasons. In addition, the bar moved higher. The new validation standard is now provider-centric–workload, provider satisfaction, and implementation metrics, because meeting clinical outcomes is a given. Mobihealthnews

And still another barrier–data breaches and cyberattack–is still with us, and growing. Quest Diagnostics’ data breach affects nearly 12 million patients. It was traced to an individual at a vendor, American Medical Collection Agency, and it involved Optum360, a Quest contractor and part of healthcare giant Optum. The unauthorized person had access to the network for eight months – between 1 August 2018, and 30 March 2019–and involved both financial and some health records. Quest now is in the #2 slot behind the massive 79 million person Anthem breach, which, based on a Federal grand jury indictment in Indianapolis in May, was executed by a Chinese group in 2015 using spearfishing and backdoors that gathered data and sent it to China. There were three other US businesses in the indictment which are not identified. Securing health data is expensive — and another limitation on the cost-lowering effects of interoperability. Healthcare IT News

Digital Health’s Year, for now, will remain Next Year–and digital health for now will remain fractional, unable to do much to commoditize healthcare or lower major costs.

The CVS-Aetna hearing is on the move–finally

The train that is the CVS-Aetna hearing, in the courtroom presided over by Judge Richard Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, is at long last chugging down the tracks. And Pauline is still tied up. Tuesday 4 June was Day 1 of this hearing. Early reports are just being filed. The issue is whether Judge Leon will authorize the Department of Justice’s approval of the merger or dissolve a closed merger, based on his authority under the Tunney Act and his own repeated intent to search for harm that the merger might do to the public. 

Today’s hearing focused on Aetna’s divestiture of its Medicare Part D business as a prelude to the merger, and whether it was quite enough. Much of the discussion was on the relative strength of the buyer, WellCare (itself in the early stages of being acquired), and whether it could be truly competitive in the Part D market. The other factor is that CVS as a dominant pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) could undermine WellCare in several ways. PBMs operate opaquely and are highly concentrated, with CVS, Optum (UnitedHealthcare), and Cigna-Express Scripts accounting for 70 percent of the market. Modern Healthcare

Other issues for Days 2 and 3 will cover the effects on competition in health insurance, retail pharmacy and specialty pharmacy.

Healthcare Dive discusses how these hearings are already setting precedent on how Tunney Act hearings are conducted, their scope (Judge Leon has ruled against every attempt by CVS-Aetna to limit it), and the unprecedented live testimony.  There is the good possibility that Judge Leon will decide to dissolve the merger for competitive reasons, which DOJ likely would appeal. Add to this the cost of the delayed integration and the precedent set by the District Court on scrutiny of any healthcare merger, and this tedious hearing along with Judge Leon’s actions leading to it hold major consequences.

China’s getting set to be the healthcare AI leader–on the backs of sick, rural citizens’ data privacy

Picture this: a mobile rural health clinic arrives at a rural village in Jia County, in China’s Henan province. The clinic staff check the villagers, many of them elderly and infirm from their hard-working lives. The staff collect vital signs, take blood, urine, ECGs, and other tests. It’s all free, versus going to the hospital 30 miles away.

The catch: the data collected is uploaded to WeDoctor, a private healthcare company specializing in online medical diagnostics and related services that is part of Tencent, the Chinese technology conglomerate which is also devoted to AI. All that data is uploaded to WeDoctor’s AI-powered cloud. The good part: the agreement with the local government that permits this also provides medical services, health insurance, pharmaceuticals and healthcare education to the local people. In addition, it creates a “auxiliary treatment system for general practice” database that Jia County doctors can access for local patients. According to the WIRED article on this, it’s impressive at an IBM Watson level: 

Doctors simply have to input a patient’s symptoms and the system provides them with suggested diagnoses and treatments, calculated from a database of over 5,000 symptoms and 2,000 diseases. WeDoctor claims that the system has an accuracy rate of 90 per cent.

and 

Dr Zhang Qiaofen, in nearby Ren Zhuang village, says the system it has made her life easier. “Since WeDoctor came to my clinic, I feel more comfortable and have more confidence,” she says. “I’m thankful to the device for helping me make decisions.”

The bad part: The patients have no consent or control over the data, nor any privacy restrictions on its use by WeDoctor, Tencent, or the Chinese government. Regional government officials are next pictured in the article reviewing data on Jia County’s citizens: village, gender, age, ailment and whether or not a person has registered with a village health check. Yes, attending these health checks is mandatory for the villagers. 

What is happening is that China is building the world’s largest medical database, free of those pesky Western democracy privacy restrictions, and using AI/machine learning to create a massive set of diagnostic tools. The immediate application is to supplement their paucity of doctors and medical facilities (1.5 doctors per 1,000 people compared to almost double in the UK). All this is being built by an estimated 130 private companies as part of the “Made in China 2025” plan. Long term, the Chinese government gets to know even more intimate details about their 1.3 billion citizens. And these private companies can make money off the data. Such a deal! The difference between China’s attitude towards privacy and Western concerns on same could not be greater.  More on WeDoctor’s ambitions to be the Amazon of healthcare and yes, profit from this data, from Bloomberg. WeDoctor is valued at an incredible $5.5 billion. Hat tip to HISTalk’s Monday morning update.

A telemedicine ‘robot’ delivers end of life news to patient: is there an ethical problem here, Kaiser Permanente?

Bad, bad press for in-hospital telemedicine. A 78 year-old man is in the ICU in a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Fremont, California. He has end-stage chronic lung disease and is accompanied by his granddaughter. A nurse wheels in an InTouch Telemedicine ‘robot’ (brand is clearly visible on the videos; KP is one of their marquee customers). The mobile monitor screen is connected to a live doctor on audio/video for a virtual consult. The doctor is delivering terminal news: that not much can be done for Mr. Quintana other than to keep him comfortable in the hospital on a morphine drip, and that he would likely be unable to return home to hospice care.

Granddaughter Annalisia Wilharm videoed the consult. The screen is high above the bed, the doctor is wearing headphones, and is looking down. The doctor’s voice is accented and hard to understand through the speakers–is the volume low because it’s set low or due to privacy regulations? In any case, the doctor is asked time and again to repeat himself by the granddaughter as the patient cannot hear or understand the doctor. Another factor apparent on the video to this Editor is that the patient is on a ventilator–and ventilators make noise that mask other sounds.

Mr. Quintana passed away in the hospital last Tuesday 5 March, after a two-day stay.

The video has gone viral here in the US, with the family going to local press first (KTVU). The story was picked up in regional Northern California coverage and blew up into national coverage from USA Today (edited video complete with emotive background music), Fox News (San Jose Mercury News video), and picked up in media as diverse as the Gateway Pundit–if you want to get a feel for vox populi, see the comments.

Kaiser Permanente has apologized in guarded terms: “We offer our sincere condolences,” said Kaiser Permanente Senior Vice-President Michelle Gaskill-Hames. “We use video technology as an appropriate enhancement to the care team, and a way to bring additional consultative expertise to the bedside.” Also: “The use of the term ‘robot’ is inaccurate and inappropriate,” she exclaimed. “This secure video technology is a live conversation with a physician using tele-video technology, and always with a nurse or other physician in the room to explain the purpose and function of the technology. It does not, and did not, replace ongoing in-person evaluations and conversations with a patient and family members.” The family also was well aware of Mr. Quintana’s status but is equally upset at his treatment at this critical time.

Despite all this exclaiming, this Editor, an advocate of innovations in telemedicine and telehealth since 2006, finds fault with Kaiser Permanente’s deploying a telemedicine consult in this situation on the following grounds:

  • End-of-life news this serious needs to be delivered by a human. Period.
  • Despite Ms. Gaskill-Hames’s statement, the video consult was not intermediated by a human. There is someone in scrubs behind the InTouch mobile monitor, but there is no standing by the monitor nor any effort to interpret what the doctor is saying. Explaining the technology is not explaining what the patient and family can do.
  • The patient had difficulty understanding the doctor’s voice, either through hearing or language comprehension. A ventilator could be blocking or masking the audio. Even so, the audio, depending on the source, is muddy, and the video worse than you get on a smartphone. 
  • The monitor is at the foot of the bed, not close to the patient. The patient may not be able to see the monitor at that distance due to poor vision.
  • It doesn’t take much thought to believe there may be an issue of cultural inappropriateness.
  • There is no patient advocate or a chaplain present. Whether one visited later is not known.
  • Another open question: why was additional comfort care and a ventilator not available at home if Mr. Quintana was truly terminal? Did this man die needlessly in an ICU?

The popular takeaway about Kaiser, the VA, and other health systems which are deploying telemedicine by their patients is that robots are replacing doctors. We may know better, but that is what the consumer press runs with–an emotional video that, BTW, breaks patient-doctor confidentiality by showing the (unnamed, but not for long) doctor giving medical instructions to Mr. Quintana.

It is not the telemedicine technology, it is how it is being used. In this case, with insensitivity. The blame will be laid, in this shallow time, at the feet of the ‘robot’. Rightly, blame should also be laid at the feet of the increasingly ‘robotic’ practices of major health systems.

There will certainly be more to this story.

A view at some variance, but winding up in the same place, is expressed by Dr. Jayne in HIStalk.

About time: digital health grows a set of ethical guidelines

Is there a sense of embarrassment in the background? Fortune reports that the Stanford University Libraries are taking the lead in organizing an academic/industry group to establish ethical guidelines to govern digital health. These grew out of two meetings in July and November last year with the participation of over 30 representatives from health care, pharmaceutical, and nonprofit organizations. Proteus Digital Health, the developer of a formerly creepy sensor pill system, is prominently mentioned, but attending were representatives of Aetna CVS, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals (which works with Proteus), Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Health, Tencent, and HSBC Holdings.

Here are the 10 Guiding Principles, which concentrate on data governance and sharing, as well as the use of the products themselves. They are expanded upon in this summary PDF:

  1. The products of digital health companies should always work in patients’ interests.
  2. Sharing digital health information should always be to improve a patient’s outcomes and those of others.
  3. “Do no harm” should apply to the use and sharing of all digital health information.
  4. Patients should never be forced to use digital health products against their wishes.
  5. Patients should be able to decide whether their information is shared, and to know how a digital health company uses information to generate revenues.
  6. Digital health information should be accurate.
  7. Digital health information should be protected with strong security tools.
  8. Security violations should be reported promptly along with what is being done to fix them.
  9. Digital health products should allow patients to be more connected to their care givers.
  10. Patients should be actively engaged in the community that is shaping digital health products.

We’ve already observed that best practices in design are putting some of these principals into action. Your Editors have long advocated, to the point of tiresomeness, that data security is not notional from the smallest device to the largest health system. Our photo at left may be vintage, but if anything the threat has both grown and expanded. 2018’s ten largest breaches affected almost 7 million US patients and disrupted their organizations’ operations. Social media is also vulnerable. Parts of the US government–Congress and the FTC through a complaint filing–are also coming down hard on Facebook for sharing personal health information with advertisers. This is PHI belonging to members of closed Facebook groups meant to support those with health and mental health conditions. (HIPAA Journal).

But here is where Stanford and the conference participants get all mushy. From their press release:

“We want this first set of ten statements to spur conversations in board rooms, classrooms and community centers around the country and ultimately be refined and adopted widely.” –Michael A. Keller, Stanford’s university librarian and vice provost for teaching and learning

So everyone gets to feel good and take home a trophy? Nowhere are there next steps, corporate statements of adoption, and so on.

Let’s keep in mind that Stanford University was the nexus of the Fraud That Was Theranos, which is discreetly not mentioned. If not a shadow hovering in the background, it should be. Perhaps there is some mea culpa, mea maxima culpa here, but this Editor will wait for more concrete signs of Action.