Sharp HealthCare CIO Ken Lawonn: Looking to the future of digital health

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Ken LawonnMedicine is becoming a digital industry. Patients and providers are beginning to embrace smartphones, wearables and telemedicine as standard tools in healthcare. Ken Lawonn, CIO of San Diego-based Sharp HealthCare, offers his perspective on all digital health has achieved this year and where it is headed in 2016.

Please not responses have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Question: How is digital health changing healthcare delivery?

Ken Lawonn: Digital health is a broad category. It allows us to expand our services in ways we haven't been able to do so before; telemedicine is just one example. Healthcare providers can grow their market share without having to worry about physical assets. It is also allowing us to deliver services in a more consumer-friendly manner. Some people call digital healthcare real-time healthcare, but right now we are on our time, not real time.

When I think about how healthcare delivery is changing, I think about the move away from episodic care. In the past, care was focused on a single incident. A patient would come in, and the interaction was focused on a patient physically coming to healthcare providers at our convenience. Now, we are headed toward focusing on a continued relationship and engagement. It will be about being involved in the day-to-day lives of patients, and you can't do that without technology.

Traditionally this was done with phone calls, but we don't have enough people to maintain that interaction. Couldn't we do this through a digital platform? We could monitor activities by using the Internet of Things, wearable devices, etc. When I think about digital health the core questions are: How do we extend existing services? Second, how do we change the basic interaction between the care team and patients?

Q: What do you think were the most exciting advances in digital health this year?

KL: The continued evolution of what we are doing with smartphones has been exciting. We are leveraging smartphones to deliver services to employees and content to our patients. Eventually, we are going to be able to monitor health conditions with these devices. Smartphones are changing the primary way we connect and interact in healthcare.

The other exciting change is the emergence of nontraditional competitors. Technology is allowing patients access to virtual care, a dramatically growing area. Nontraditional competitors could be a company created to connect people to caregivers or another health system outside your community.

Q: What are the biggest barriers to digital health adoption for providers and patients?

KL: From the provider perspective, there is resistance focused on the shift in interaction. Physicians have a hard time shifting away from the in-person visit to a virtual interaction. There is a sense of control; physicians feel everyone should go through them and be based on their schedule. It isn't the technology that bothers them; it is the change in perspective. Second, there is the reimbursement dilemma. Will the provider get paid for interacting with patients through digital health?

From the consumer side, it is an issue of sorting through all the options out there. The biggest challenge is finding what is meaningful. Consumers are also concerned over whether or not these services will be covered under their health insurance.

Q: Where do you see the biggest opportunities to advance digital health initiatives in 2016?

KL: At Sharp HealthCare, we are looking to take on a population health platform and truly understand patient engagement. We are also entering the telemedicine world. Our primary medical group is starting to provide a number of telemedicine services. We are asking ourselves, "How do we become relevant in patients' daily lives when they have so many other options? There is so much access to information. How does the primary care physician continue to be seen as the center of the universe?"

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