Digital health experts from the public and private sectors gathered Tuesday at Sanford Health’s Summit on the Future of Rural Health Care.
The event, hosted by the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based health system, featured a lineup of speakers from big tech firms and health systems.
Speakers were optimistic that providers at smaller, rural health systems could drive adoption of digital health solutions. However, they say there are still challenges with trust and technology accessibility that could slow this process.
Here were Digital Health Business & Technology’s takeaways from the virtual event:
1. Adoption of digital health in rural markets offers challenges and benefits.
Leaders argued small, rural hospitals could lead adoption of digital health technologies because there are fewer barriers to implementation when compared to large, academic research hospitals. “Rural healthcare needs to flip the equation,” said Jim Weinstein, a senior vice president at Microsoft Health’s Innovation and Equity team. “It needs to be the model for this country, not the follower.”
While there is generally less red tape to slow digital health adoption in rural hospitals, technological challenges persist. Many advanced platforms require broadband internet that can be sparse in rural communities.
2. Providers face mounting competition—especially in primary care.
Gone are the days where physicians interact with patients solely in brick-and-mortar offices. The pandemic accelerated the need for virtual primary care. “Retail America vaccinated everyone—to this day you can’t get a COVID[-19 vaccination] shot at a doctor’s office,” said Dr. Geeta Nayyar, chief medical officer at Salesforce. “The consumer behavior will change.”
According to Nayyar, traditional providers won’t be able to compete with the convenience and scale retail outlets offer consumers. However, for more complex interactions traditional providers can still offer value and continuity. Weinstein said traditional providers would care for customers that “other people don’t want.” The most lucrative customers, he said, will be fiercely competed for among retail and tech outlets.
“Look at the deals,” Weinstein said. “[Traditional providers] are going to be left with what other people don’t want.”
Amazon recently acquired One Medical, has reported interest in Signify, and invested in the expansion of Amazon Care. Weinstein said Microsoft is different from Amazon. Rather than acquiring or building business lines to compete with traditional providers, the company is pitching itself as a partner. Microsoft recently announced a partnership with UPMC focused on data optimization.
It won’t just be big tech and retail competing in this space. Multiple experts said the lines between payers and providers would continue to be blurred as digital health proliferates.