You’re reading the web edition of STAT Health Tech, our guide to how tech is transforming the life sciences. Sign up to get this newsletter delivered in your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday.
IBM sells Watson Health data on 270 million Americans
The Watson Health era is over at IBM. The company sold the core data and analytics assets of its struggling health division to Francisco Partners, a San Francisco-based private equity firm with an active portfolio of health technology investments. The deal ends a dark chapter for IBM, which failed to live up to its promises to use AI to revolutionize drug discovery, cancer care, and hospital operations. It also instantly makes Francisco Partners a significant player in a growing national market for buying and selling sensitive patient data. The firm will soon own the national MarketScan insurance claims database, which includes medical and drug data on more than 270 million Americans, as well as smaller datasets containing medical images and other clinical information. Casey has the full story.
Hospitals are pouring money into digital health companies
Hospitals nationwide are rapidly increasing their investments in digital health companies to help bankroll the development of novel software and artificial intelligence tools. The amount of money invested through hospital venture arms increased to nearly $4 billion last year, up 150% from 2019, according to data from CB Insights. Large health systems like Mayo Clinic are leading the charge, but several smaller providers have also become major players. These equity deals offer a significant source of revenue as well as an opportunity to drive changes in data analysis and the delivery of care. But they also raise the potential for conflicts between the hospital’s financial interests and its commitments to protect patient privacy and deliver optimal care. Read more from Casey.
No, not that Nightingale
At Google, Project Nightingale was the code name for a health record-mining partnership that has drawn the scrutiny of federal regulators who questioned whether millions of patient records were being adequately protected. But a new open science project going by the same name aims to capitalize on medical records in a different way. Nightingale Open Science, a nonprofit co-founded by UC Berkeley health and machine learning researcher Ziad Obermeyer, launched in December with the goal of opening up deidentified datasets linking medical images like X-rays, ECG results, and biopsy slides to health outcomes — the kind of information that many machine learning researchers want to develop and test new tools, but struggle to access because they’re locked up in hospital databases or company assets. Read more about how the project aims to accelerate computational medicine in Katie’s Q&A with Obermeyer.
Telehealth lobbying soars to new heights
As debates raged in Congress over telehealth policy that could shape the industry landscape for years to come, new disclosures show major companies spent big to influence the process, our colleague Rachel Cohrs reports. Teladoc spent $400,000 last year, a 60% increase from the prior year. Everly Health spent $190,000, or 41% more than 2020. GoodRx boosted its spend by 567% to $590,000. Last year also marked Amazon’s entry into the telehealth lobbying landscape, as its first disclosure mentioning the issue appeared in the first quarter of 2021.
The exception to the lobbying bonanza was the American Telemedicine Association, which spent just $120,000 last year, a 20% decrease from 2020. But that trend may be altered soon, as the group last week announced a new trade organization called ATA Action. If the group gets buy-in and funding from its corporate members, it could have the potential to consolidate power in a fractured landscape.
Mark Cuban’s online pharmacy pledges ‘radical transparency’
The Mark Cuban CostPlus Drug Company is using a simple formula to price prescription drugs: the drug manufacturer’s price plus a flat 15% margin and a $3 pharmacist’s fee. In doing so, the online pharmacy, which launched last week, is seeking to demystify the often frustratingly opaque process of shopping for prescription drugs. It’s starting small, with about 100 or generic medicines, but it’s one of many online pharmacy startups promising to attack incumbent PBMs and pharmacies by making prices more predictable and understandable.
Billing for email puts a value on virtual care
At the University of California, San Francisco, physicians have had to contend with surging numbers of clinical emails, growing from a few hundred thousand in 2016 to about two million in 2021. So the system is fighting back against digital burnout by billing payers for emails that require medical evaluation or more than a few minutes to respond, a shift enabled by pandemic-era policy from CMS that allowed for reimbursement for such “e-Visits.” So far, the messages have been reimbursed at a rate of about $65, with copays ranging from zero for most Medicare patients and $5 or $10 for some commercially insured patients. But some worry new ways to pay for these digital touchpoints will create more billing code chaos and keep patients from seeking care. Mohana has the full story.
Headed for the exits!
With exit lanes wide open, digital health companies are cashing in on sky-high expectations that their products will transform health care delivery and operations in the years ahead. As a new report by CB Insights shows, 2021 brought a sharp uptick in M&A deals as well as increases in traditional IPOs and SPAC deals. The trend appears to be continuing so far in 2022, but the bigger question is whether these companies will achieve the growth they’re forecasting.
What digital health data is worth sharing?
As people generate ever-more digital traces, everything from credit card transactions and public surveillance to social media and internet searches has the potential to be turned into actionable health information. But are people willing to share that data alongside information like electronic health records? A survey of more than 3,500 Americans published in JAMA Network Open by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania showed that perspectives on data sharing can vary widely depending on which information was shared, who used it, its ultimate purpose, and the health condition it represented. Respondents were most comfortable with sharing step counts generated by a smartphone, but had more privacy concerns about financial and social media data. And while sharing data for marketing purposes was unpopular, many were also reluctant to share digital data for clinical use. “The current lack of protections may hinder consumer support for health programs powered by consumer digital data and data science,” the authors wrote.
What we’re reading