The US health care system relies heavily on private markets. While private insurers, provider organizations, and drug and device companies are familiar to many, little is known about the increasing presence of venture capital in today’s delivery system. The growth of venture capital and venture capital -backed, early-stage companies (startups) deserves the attention of patients and policy makers because advancements in medicine are no longer exclusively born from providers within the delivery system and increasingly from innovators outside of it.
While venture capital -backed startups in digital health offer opportunities to affect the cost and quality of care, often by challenging prevailing modes of care delivery, they pose potential risks to patient care and raise important questions for policy makers. To date, however, an analytic framework for understanding the role of venture capital in medicine is lacking.
A Brief History
Venture capital firms provide funding to startups judged to have potential to disrupt existing industries in exchange for ownership and some control over strategy and operations. Venture capital businesses have recently funded hundreds of startups developing technology-enabled digital health products, including wearable devices, mobile health applications, telemedicine, and personalized medicine tools. Between 2010 and 2017, the value of investments in digital health increased by 858 percent, and the number of financing deals in this sector increased by 412 percent; more than $41.5 billion has been invested in digital health this decade (see Exhibit 1). This growth far exceeds the growth of total venture capital funding (166 percent) and total number of venture capital deals (50 percent) (in all fields) in the overall economy, as well as growth in health care spending (34 percent). In 2017 alone, venture capital firms invested more than $11.5 billion in digital health, from patient-facing devices to provider-facing practice management software to payer-facing data analysis services.
Exhibit 1: Venture Capital Funding For Digital Health Versus US Health Care Spending
Sources: Data are from StartUp Health Insights 2017 Year End Report and the National Health Expenditure (NHE) Accounts Team. Notes: Dollars invested (blue bars) have units of billions. The NHE plot is expressed in trillions (T) of dollars. A deal is a distinct agreement reached between venture capital investors and a startup company, typically including parameters such as the amount of money invested and equity involved in a given startup company.
Three key elements have likely driven this growth. First, the inability of physicians to consistently monitor patients and persistent challenges with patient adherence have created a need for digital technologies to serve as a mechanism for care delivery. Second, the increasing migration of medical care out of the hospital and fragmentation of care among specialties has increased demand for new forms of patient-to-provider and provider-to-provider communication. Third, expansions in insurance coverage and new payment models that encourage cost control have aligned incentives for technologies that aim to substitute higher-cost services with lower-cost, higher-value services.
Strategies For Disruption
The venture capital movement will likely be judged on two factors: whether it improves patient outcomes and experience, and whether it saves money for society. To date, rigorous evidence on the impact of venture capital -backed innovations is scarce. Most deals have occurred in the past few years, and most startup technologies take time to scale and are not implemented with a control group or a design that facilitates easy evaluation. Traditional provider groups may often be too small, hospital operations too rigid, and delivery systems too skeptical for a given digital health innovation to be implemented widely and tested rigorously. Moreover, data on the impact of such technologies on patients and costs may often be held privately akin to trade secrets.
However, some early small-scale randomized controlled studies have suggested potential health benefits (for example, improved glycemic and blood pressure control) of mobile health applications and wearable biosensors. Evidence may grow as startup products are brought closer to market.
Despite the shortage of rigorous public evidence, the strategies of startups to influence use and spending are apparent. Many startups target wellness and prevention among self-insured employers, using smartphones and wearable devices to engage and track patients with the hope of lowering costs through decreasing use. Although this strategy of saving money through helping people become healthier in their daily lives remains largely unproven, hundreds of companies in this space have received substantial amounts of funding. Among the most well-known is Omada Health, which provides proprietary online coaching programs and other digital tools to help prevent diabetes and other chronic diseases. It is considered the nation’s largest federally recognized provider of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Diabetes Prevention Program, having received more than $125 million in venture funding since it was founded in 2011.
Another segment of startups focus on a separate driver of health care costs—the prices of medical services. These firms are increasingly partnering with employers to steer patients toward lower-cost providers for expensive treatments such as joint replacements. Their path to success—creating savings through price transparency—is also largely unproven, although lowering prices through enhancing competition is a reasonable approach.
Still other digital health startups focus on improving access to primary care via telehealth, virtual visits, and related mechanisms of accessing care. Some use biometric data (genetics or biosensor data) to facilitate early detection of medical problems. While evidence is sparse, these efforts may lead to increased use and spending. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the startup technologies will be priced below existing substitutes. To the extent that these technologies improve outcomes but at a greater total cost, policy makers and adopters of such innovations may face difficult decisions over access and tradeoffs.
Points Of Caution
Given differences among health care and other industries, the success of the digital health boom is far from promised. Medical evidence suggests that changes in practice typically lag behind technological advancements. For evidence-based guidelines, randomized controlled trials remain the gold standard despite their considerable expense and length, which place them out of reach for many startup technologies. In addition to showing efficacy, interventions must convincingly demonstrate that they “do no harm.”
This culture directly conflicts with the “fail fast, fail hard” reality of venture capital, in which a return on investment is typically sought within several years. Furthermore, the complex clinical workflows of traditional medical practices offer little room for disruption without potentially putting provider satisfaction or patient safety at risk (at least in the short term). In a profession in which institutions move slowly and health is at stake, technological innovations face a higher threshold for acceptance relative to other industries.
Other barriers to adoption include: the difficulty of building successful business models centered on lowering spending in a largely revenue-maximizing system in which providers often lack the incentives to eliminate waste; HIPAA-related privacy rules and restrictions that hinder data sharing across digital platforms; incompatibility between newer cloud-based technologies that startups build and old legacy technologies used by traditional providers; and the lack of billing codes and ways of recognizing provider effort in digital health, which complicates budget or price negotiations. It is perhaps no surprise that 98 percent of digital health startups ultimately fail.
Outlook For The Future
In the first three quarters of 2018, venture capital involvement in health care has further accelerated. The third quarter saw an estimated $4.5 billion in digital health funding—the most of any quarter on record. As this industry grows, policy makers have an important role to play.
Regulatory guidance is needed to shape the scope and direction of new technologies, with patient safety and societal costs in mind. Venture capital firms and startups often point to a lack of regulatory guidance on what must undergo formal approval. The current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Digital Health Innovation Plan is a positive step toward defining the path to market for low-risk digital devices and specifying what digital health tools fall outside the FDA’s scope.
Second, a reimbursement framework for digital technologies is needed. Thoughtful debate about their prices and new billing codes should be had in an open forum. Outcomes-based pricing and other value-based approaches that go beyond the fee-for-service standard should be considered.
Most importantly, policy makers and government agencies such as the FDA, CMS, and the National Institutes of Health should study the effects of startups in health care and facilitate research on these products to inform payers and the public of their benefits and drawbacks. In the current climate, little funding has been allocated toward such research. This leaves providers and patients relying almost exclusively on industry-funded studies, at times conducted by the same startup that is selling the product or service. Publicly funded, independent studies of the impact of venture capital-backed products and services on clinical and economic outcomes are needed to establish an evidence base that patients and providers can broadly trust.