Same song, different verse: Digital innovation, hype and amnesia

Living in Los Angeles, surrounded by the Hollywood “scene,” the rampant combination of hype and FOMO never ceases to amaze. As clinicians and analytical people, my peers and I were frequently perplexed by this constant race to the bottom – fueled by competitive paranoia and short term amnesia.  It was as if the “industry” (as we Angelenos call it) can only see what is immediately in front of it. 

If a movie about the mating habits of the Columbian umbrellabird emerged as an unexpected blockbuster, a half a dozen movies about exotic birds would erupt within a year of its release.  Once said hypothetical bird movie and its dreadful successors vacate the industry’s collective brain, the inevitable will occur a few years later:  a producer afflicted with short term memory loss will decide that a movie about South American avian breeding is a brilliant idea.  And so, the cycle of hype and amnesia continues.


Now, this may prompt some laughs, but the glamorously fickle world of healthcare technology is not that different from the entertainment industry.  When we think about what happened in the physician world, beginning in 2008, it’s strikingly similar to what mental health therapists such as licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs), licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), and psychologists are experiencing today.  The rapidly growing demand for mental health therapists is spurred by patients’ increased access to coverage of mental/behavioral health benefits by CMS and commercial insurers.  This is reminiscent of the aftermath of the HITECH and ARRA acts of 2008 and 2009 – which increased patients’ access to health insurance but resulted in a significant supply and demand issue.

Physicians juggling precariously large patient panels and burdened with a 25% increase in time spent charting in a newly required EMR triggered an ongoing decline in the number of physicians in the US.  This decline is projected to reach an estimated physician shortage of 61,700 - 94,700 by 2025, per the AAMC.  The glaring need to decrease physicians’ manual workload with technology is what triggered the health tech innovation frenzy that ensued - fueled by over $17B of venture capital.


So, is it amnesia or FOMO that afflicts digital health entrepreneurs and the investors that fund them?  Why is the hype du jour in mental health innovation heavily focused on shiny consumer-facing technologies?  Is the frenzied FOMO by entrepreneurs and investors jumping on the consumer-facing innovation bandwagon the equivalent of the exotic bird movies riding the coattails of an unexpected Oscar-bound umbrellabird?  Aren’t they just singing a different verse of the same song? 


Unless we provide mental health providers with much needed, user-friendly technology to optimize their practice workflow, history will simply repeat itself.  Spending hours per day on manual tasks that can be automated is taking time away from patient care – at a time when more and more patients are demanding access to mental health services.  These costly manual workflows such as appointment management, insurance eligibility tangles, and claims cycles wrought with avoidable denials are some of the business challenges that therapists face.  The lack of convenient, simple, mobile, and web-based solutions for practice optimization and patient engagement is initiating the same level of job dissatisfaction, frustration with the status quo, and worsening of the supply and demand challenge that occurred with physicians. 


The question remains if the digital health industry is suffering from simple short term amnesia or a more critical case of hype-induced blackouts?