Digital health, done right, has the potential to fully customize care for each patient, as well as make each patient’s interactions with healthcare providers more productive and engaging. That was the gist of a Techonomy 2019 session about innovation in healthcare.

The discussion was moderated by Aaron Strout from the marketing-communications firm W2O group, and included two panelists: Julia Hoffman, vice president of behavioral health strategy at Livongo Health, and Michelle Stansbury, vice president of information technology and innovation at the Houston Methodist health system.


Incorporating innovation in healthcare today requires a major commitment, said Hoffman, whose company focuses on helping patients manage chronic conditions through connected devices and AI. “The era of one-off apps that a person can put into the App Store is over, or should be over soon… What we really need to support health — real health — in this country is the thoughtful integration of those products into the existing healthcare system,” she said. That involves “really thinking about who is the clinician, what is their workflow, who is the user or member, what is their life flow for the 99.9% of their life that they’re not in the clinic.” The best digital health innovators, Hoffman added, understand not only their place in the ecosystem but also the best metrics to use for measuring success.

From her perch within a large health system, Stansbury sees the challenges of innovation. She is part of Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation, where she and her colleagues also hold other positions within the broader health system — from human resources to marketing to legal and beyond. “Many organizations had created these separate, siloed groups and they weren’t really functioning well,” Stansbury said. “We believe by having these dual roles, we’re able to quickly take that new technology and embed it within the organizations, and it’s proven very effective for us.”

Both organizations are using voice-based technology to improve patient care. At Houston Methodist, for example, a pilot project is allowing physicians to spend more time interacting with patients by using Apple Watch and other technology to translate spoken information into digital content for the patient’s electronic medical record. Without this approach, physicians spend their patient visits hunched over a computer, entering notes and “not building that rapport … with the patient,” Stansbury said, adding: “[This] is really helping our physicians and our clinicians spend more engaging time with the patients face-to-face.”


Meanwhile, Livongo has built technology based on Amazon’s Alexa platform and connected medical devices to allow patients to ask health-related questions, such as their latest blood sugar reading. Tracking this kind of information is critically important for many chronic conditions. Hoffman’s team is looking for other ways to use this kind of technology. “How do we use Alexa to consider the needs of the whole person?” she said.

Beyond voice technologies, the panelists shared other examples of how innovation can make a difference in healthcare. At Houston Methodist, for example, the challenge of hiring nurses has been largely overcome with a chatbot that can field questions from prospective employees after business hours, when they’re most likely to be looking for jobs. The program has been “so successful [that] we’re now moving into other areas,” Stansbury said.

Stansbury is eager to implement technology to enable virtual care visits, possibly even within a primary care doctor’s office for patients who have been given referrals to specialists. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just have that virtual visit right there from your primary care’s office into that specialty so that potentially you could go ahead and take care of that appointment right then?” she said. “We really believe [that] is going to help facilitate getting care much sooner.”

That kind of patient-centric care should be fully tailored to each person’s needs. “There is no non-personalized care,” Hoffman said, noting that the provider’s expertise we rely on today to understand why two patients with similar conditions need different treatments “gets lost in a lot of our digital innovation.” New technologies “need to understand this specific person in this specific moment,” she added.

In the coming years, Stansbury said, “we are really going to see this explosion” of how healthcare can be delivered in non-traditional ways. Ultimately, she believes, we will begin to get healthcare in the way that “we as consumers and patients want to get it.”