AMA's CEO Takes a Shot at Digital Health

June 17, 2016

Looking at AMA CEO James Madara's words on the digital health landscape and what the physician advocacy group really thinks about the technology.

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Physicians of America, you have found your newest enemy. It's not the government, it's not large insurance companies, and it's not even ICD-11 (yet).

It's that thing people are wearing around their wrists, the Fitbit. You probably know someone who wears one.

This week, the AMA's CEO James Madara, a pathologist by trade, took a widely publicized shot at digital health at the advocacy group's annual meeting. Here are his words, emphasis mine.

"Today we have really remarkable tools - robotic surgery, new forms of radiation treatment, targeted biologics; and we live in a time of rapid development in the digital world - telemedicine as an example. But appearing in disguise among these positive products are other digital so-called advancements that don't have an appropriate evidence base, or just don't work that well - or actually impede care, confuse patients and waste our time. From ineffective electronic health records, to an explosion of direct-to-consumer digital health products, to apps of mixed quality - it's the digital snake oil of the early 21st century."

He didn't stop there.

"Even those digital products that might be helpful often lack a way of enriching the relationship between the physician and the patient."

According to Health Data Management, he even went after Eric Topol, physician, chief academic officer of San Diego's Scripps Health, and author of a book on digital health.

"Energizing this rush of new products, we find popular books predicting a future of digital healthcare, that in the near future, will bypass physicians altogether - where patients can largely look after themselves. The future is not about eliminating physicians, it's about leveraging physicians."

Dr. Madara had to know his commentary was going to create a bit of a stir, and indeed, it did. It got responses on Twitter, it got a response from noted health IT physician and expert, John Halamka, and grabbed headlines across the healthcare journalism landscape.

Maybe creating a stir was the point. Digital health has reached a tipping point in adoption and reports from research firms like Rock Health indicate that it's only going to ramp up in the years to come. The venture capital firms are pouring money into digital health, trying to bet on the next big thing. If you walk into the Verizon store, the first thing you see nowadays is a table promoting the Fitbit.

I'm sure many doctors are dealing with this in their office, with newly engaged patients talking about their step counts and the various medical iPhone apps they're using.

It's no secret that doctors are not fans of EHRs. That's not exactly an unpopular opinion to have. However, digital health apps have yet to receive any kind of widespread ire. Until recently, it's possibly that doctors like Madara thought they'd be a flash in the pan. Technology that wouldn't last more than a year or two, and they wouldn't have to deal with step counts.

That doesn't seem to be the case. Digital health is here to stay and some physicians may believe that the current iteration of these products could do more harm than help. They likely feel threatened by the belief, espoused by people like Topol, that technology is going to replace them.

It'd be easy to criticize AMA for taking what seems to be a hardline stance on digital health. I do think Madara's words were a bit harsh. And while that may have been the point, it detracts from the big picture. Because it should be noted that the AMA launched an innovation company, Health 2047, to connect digital health companies and developers with physicians. They also launched an incubator program with similar goals.

AMA does not see digital health as the enemy, they see digital health that's created without physician input as an enemy to progress. That's a much less explosive opinion, but one that is probably represented in physician practices across the country.

What do you think? What do you make of the digital health revolution? Let us know in the comments section below.

 

Follow Gabriel Perna on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna