Separating Hype From Reality in KFF’s Reporting on Health Tech

A little over a month ago, Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) head Drew Altman saw fit to editorialize on a brief report his outfit conducted in August 2019 on Health Apps and Information

The topline of his take was this: “Tech companies trying to disrupt the health care system still have a long way to go….[s]plashy health tech announcements are everywhere, but many are more hype than reality”.

Ok, fine. But Altman overlooked the more critical reality, underscored by the Foundation’s own survey: tech that will be used for health treatment is everywhere, and it’s pervasiveness is, if anything, under-hyped. 

A few examples: in response to the survey’s first question, 88 percent of respondents  reported that yes, they own a smartphone. Not merely a cellphone, for making phone calls; a phone that is, in fact, a powerful computing communications device. 

So, now, practically, EVERYONE owns a smartphone. It’s  something you can pretty safely assume when planning practically any activity, any initiative, that is intended to “touch” any American person. Almost more safely than you can assume they have running water in the structure they live in, or merely flush toilets.

And it gets … more: NINETY ONE PERCENT report that they use the internet several times a day, with 2 out of 5 respondents reporting they use it “almost constantly”.

“Almost  constantly”? What does that even mean?

So, now, you, and I, and everyone can assume the internet, like those invisible little plastic bits that are everywhere, is in your bloodstream and that of every living person in the US. And that it is always on.

Altman frets that “fewer than 25% have used the internet to manage chronic conditions, mental health, or their health care spending”; he was probably too depressed on learning that only 16% of respondents have experienced a video treatment visit with a clinician to bother reporting that (though one percent report they engage in video visits with clinicians “About Once A Day”). 

That’s too bad, because he’s missing the more crucial point highlighted by his outfit’s own report– nowadays, people don’t use the internet; the internet uses them

Said less provocatively, those presumptively low “engagement” figures more accurately reflect how often people generally engage their health, period. And our ubiquitous tech gadgetry makes it possible for us to have even crude metrics that document that contention and possibly even act on it. Most people, most of the time, are not thinking of themselves as, or acting like, patients. But a small percentage definitely, and actively, and intently, are, and should be doing so, as they consume the lion’s share of what we label health care.

We are all familiar with that reality, because we are all familiar with The Single Most Important Chart in All of US Healthcare, and its implications. But apparently even the head of the country’s largest and possibly most influential health policy chronicler is not.