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The Future Is Now: Big Tech and Digital Health Have Changed Patient Care Forever

  • Chan Harjivan, BSP ’95, on how big data and telehealth have arrived in the world of healthcare.

    The future of healthcare is here. At least that’s what Chan Harjivan, BSP ’95, says. Harjivan, lead Managing Director and Partner in Boston Consulting Group’s US Public Sector Health Practice and frequent advisor to health payer and provider organizations, says that technology in healthcare has been ramping up over the past ten years, but the influx of urgency and money during the COVID-19 pandemic hugely accelerated the adoption of it. Healthcare now looks very different than it did just a few years ago, even a few months ago, and the changes are here to stay.

    Telehealth is of course one of the most noticeable changes for patients, as many doctor’s appointments have gone virtual. But the virtual environment is also changing the way practitioners are trained. The use of computing power to base training on data has enormous potential. Unlike conferences or dinners sponsored by drug companies, algorithms can personalize courses for practitioners and target areas in which they need improvement. Gamification keeps students motivated, lets them learn on their phones, and most importantly tracks learning. Harjivan says that this all allows for a “personalized testing mechanism that can be done remotely and that is much more accurate” in terms of knowledge assessment.

    Chan Harjivan

    Data is also being used for improved diagnostics as population data trickles down to personalized care, and constant, real-time biosurveillance means that populations are monitored 24 hours a day through our mobiles and smart home devices. Massive data sets allow for surprisingly accurate diagnostic capabilities, and they are improving every day. Think of them as massive, large-scale prospective clinical trials. Some examples: voice-assistant scans assess Parkinson’s in a user based on changes in vocal frequency. Mobile phone companies can detect gait change and tell who you are by the way you walk when your phone is in your pocket—and predict lung function. Changing swiping patterns can assess mental status such as bipolar syndrome; pictures uploaded can predict depression. Software applications can predict dementia based on typing patterns and word usage. Harjivan himself worked on an application used in Southeast Asia that sends an alert to a loved one if an elderly person’s mobile has not moved for six hours, which might indicate a fall or other health emergency. This type of continuous monitoring and analytics, if deployed properly by big firms who gather data (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.) can improve diagnostics of chronic diseases, place more emphasis on preventative medicine, spur progress in long-term health outcomes, allow personalized interventions and save lives. There is an “incredible ability of hyperscale tech companies to intervene in healthcare,” Harjivan says. “They are beginning to know your health conditions far better than your clinician does. That’s the future. The near-term future.” Healthcare professionals can follow the lead of consumer companies—the expression, “know your customer” can become “know your patient.” Currently, these companies often know more about a patient than the patient and with a greater contextual view of the patient than provided in a form they fill out at a visit to their health care provider. He continues, “The mobile will be the centerpiece of this healthcare intervention and patient interaction.”

    These developments, along with continued improvements in pharmacy; personalized drug manufacturing using 3D printing; genomics; and drones for cold-chain supply, point to a bright future—if the healthcare system can work together. Imagine going to a pharmacy and the pharmacist printing a combination pill personalized for you. So, how do we sustain progress and encourage big tech to act in the interest of patient health? Incentives, says Harjivan. Clear regulatory frameworks, incentives for preventative care, increased public-private partnerships, and personalized incentives for patients can all help foster the use of new technologies for health care providers.