Why digital health is Colorado tech’s next big thing

February 29, 2016

photo: Kimberly Wolff Photography

It’s no secret the American healthcare system could use a little help.

Legislation like the Affordable Care Act has made a dent, with policies that aim to change the way insurance companies, care providers and patients engage one another, but changing an entire system takes time — and it requires more than just government intervention.

For too long, the system’s had an outdated vision of what healthcare means, and for too long, the tools insurances companies and providers use to do business have been pretty old-school. Like in other sectors, a new industry has emerged from this challenge: digital health, or the application of information and communications technologies to improve health. From the iPad your doctor carries around to the Fitbit on your wrist, digital health is on the rise — and Colorado’s leading the way, thanks in large part to Denver’s 

.

CEO Jeffrey Nathanson said Colorado has long been on the cutting-edge of the healthcare industry. “Colorado was one of the first states to adopt medicaid years ago, and we are one of the first states to have a healthcare exchange,” he said.

And the existing startup community hasn’t hurt either. “We also have one of the leading entrepreneurial ecosystems and as a result of that, we have one of the leading digital health ecosystems in the United States,” Nathanson said.

He added that by some analyses, on a national basis Colorado is often considered in the top 10 communities for digital health.

With more than 1,200 members, Prime Health is working to boost the digital health ecosystem and position the Colorado community as leaders of digital health in the U.S. And they’re certainly on track, with market-segment giants like

and , which was recently acquired by Aetna, calling Colorado home. Nathanson said Prime Health has now identified upwards of 130 Colorado companies developing products and services to deliver healthcare in an easily-accessible, low-cost way.

Nathanson said Prime Health’s goal is to stimulate the local ecosystem and develop a process with which to qualify, test and assist these companies in the development of new innovations while helping to integrate them into the healthcare delivery system. In addition to identifying and building relationships with these companies, Prime Health partners with larger organizations like the Colorado Health Foundation and healthcare systems like Kaiser Permanente and the University of Colorado Health to plan events, summits, bootcamps and challenges all designed to support Colorado’s digital health community.

For example, Prime Health recently partnered with the Colorado BioScience Association to host a digital health bootcamp, where accepted applicants learned about subjects like market segments and business model validation. Prime Health's upcoming events include a cybersecurity summit, a discussion program covering data analytics and their Digital Health Summit in May.

Each year in autumn, Prime Health hosts their Digital Health Challenge, a three-month program of mentorship and competition for digital health innovators. The program ends with an event where companies pitch proposals to test their products in a pilot with healthcare delivery systems like SCL Health, University of Colorado Health and Kaiser Permanente, who also act as judges for the event. Nathanson said the Colorado Health Foundation supports the event by awarding a $150,000 prize, split among the winners of hosted pilot. Nathanson said the Digital Health Summit and Digital Health Challenge produce companies that are evaluated and qualified to participate in programs in other states. “It got to a point where everyone was saying, ‘What’s going on in Colorado that all those great companies are coming from there?'" Nathanson said. “And we think it’s because of what we’re doing with Prime Health.”

As for where digital health is headed next? For Nathanson, it’s hard to tell. “Things are changing so quickly, there’s no real clarity about trends, nuance and where things are heading,” he said.

Nonetheless, Nathanson said the key themes in digital health companies of late appear to be placing a greater emphasis on mobile devices, increasing patient engagement and transparency, concern about personal responsibility and a focus on transitions in care.

Prime Health’s membership continues to grow, and they recently announced they’ll be moving into the Catalyst Health Tech Innovation hub when it opens in 2018. With digital health companies like

, , and on the rise in Colorado, it’s clear the digital health sector is poised to become a huge part of Colorado’s tech community.

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