Will health care startups really improve health?

September 3rd, 2019

From high-tech fitness trackers, to genome sequencing, to pill delivery services, health care startups are booming in popularity. But in their quest to “disrupt” health care, these startups are missing a key point, write Shannon Brownlee, Vikas Saini, and Benjamin F. Miller in the San Francisco Examiner: creating healthier communities won’t happen without addressing the underlying social and environmental conditions that determine health. 

Many of these startups promise improved health through increased access to testing (such as blood testing or genetic sequencing), monitoring (constant tracking of steps and heart rate, for example), and personalized care (such as health and nutrition plans based on genetics). However, the evidence that these functions improve health is slim, the authors write. Genomic sequencing has not been shown to improve population health or change health behaviors; wearable fitness trackers don’t actually help people lose weight; and personalized health plans rarely give people information about diet and exercise they don’t already know. 

The promise of health from these startups is based on the assumption that focusing on individual behavior is the answer. However, they ignore that individual health habits themselves are “affected by a set of socioeconomic factors, which together with environmental conditions affect how long we live, our mental well-being, and a host of other health outcomes.” 

Brownlee, Saini, and Miller conclude, “If Silicon Valley really wants to disrupt the health care sector in a way that has the most impact on people’s health, it needs to bake an understanding of community conditions into whatever ideas they put forward.” 

Read the full op-ed here, and the Lown Institute report on California’s spending on community conditions!

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