Digital health has been around long enough that innovators in the space are looking back and reflecting on what works. Hearing from those with hindsight gives startups and young leaders a chance to glean some wisdom as they design new products and services for mHealth, health IT, wearable devices, telehealth and personalized medicine.

Earlier this summer, Greg Tracy, the CTO and cofounder of Propeller Health, offered just such a reflection at Health 2.0’s HXRefactored conference in Boston.

Propeller Health makes connected inhalers and patient- and provider-facing data analytics tools for respiratory disease and COPD. Now a mature startup, Propeller is the leading digital platform for respiratory health management. With over a decade of experience the company has numerous published efficacy studies and business relationships with most major pharmaceutical companies in the respiratory space.

As MobiHealthNews reported, Tracy’s reflections at HXRefactored point to three tips for meaningful digital health innovation.

1. Fit seamlessly into patients’ lives
Propeller makes sensors that attach to various inhalers to track when patients take their medication. Usage data is transmitted via Bluetooth to a smartphone app where patients and physicians can track how patients use their inhalers.

But earlier versions of the inhaler hit a snare: patients weren’t charging them often enough. Propeller thought they had made huge progress when they got the battery to last 30 days (from a mere 2-3 days with a previous version), but that still wasn’t long enough. As Tracy said, “We found that instead of helping patients manage asthma, we were trying to build charging habits. It was horrible.”

Propeller eventually moved to a disposable device that lasts a year and a half on a single charge. They also reworked the product to eliminate manual bluetooth pairing after realizing it created a huge hassle. “It’s really super important that you don’t add a new burden to people’s lives,” Tracy concluded.

2. Focus on health outcomes before technology
“Another lesson we learned was to focus more on health outcomes, as opposed to just trying to push or sell technology for technology’s sake,” Tracy told the audience. For Propeller Health, this means studies and published literature on the efficacy of their solutions.

Efficacy data is important for several reasons. It helps sell the product and secure reimbursements, but it also helps design and engineering teams iterate and improve the innovation. Propeller doesn’t just measure engagement and retention of smart inhaler use – they focus on real lifestyle and health effects like controller medication compliance and number of asthma-free days.

For example, a randomized clinical trial conducted in 2016 found that patients using the Propeller Health Asthma Platform reduced their use of SABA (short-acting beta agonist, a rescue medicine used to provide quick relief of asthma symptoms). Compared to a control group, the Propeller users also had more SABA-free days and better control of their asthma.

3. Add to the status quo
“A mere digital version of a legacy treatment, no matter how slick, will have limited impact on health outcomes,” as MobiHealthNews synthesized. Propeller figured this out pretty quickly. While their first year or two was focused on digitizing traditional asthma treatment plans, they realized you can’t just stop at automation.

Propeller’s innovation has been to create meaningful insights by bringing data together in new ways. “It’s not just about reminding them to take their meds, or helping them understand what their trigger is, but now we can give them a forecast of what might happen tomorrow based on their history,” Tracy said.

As Propeller COO Chris Hogg has said elsewhere, the challenge isn’t just connecting hardware but using data to improve patient outcomes and experience. The holy grail is to use this data to drive “drive personalized, adaptive dosing of medications,” Hogg says. Propeller has been experimenting with incorporating data about air quality, temperature, pollen levels and humidity as a way of helping patients take the right dose of meds at the right time.

Propeller’s lessons are a useful reminder for anyone pushing forward digital health. The most meaningful innovations will fit seamlessly into patients’ lives, focus on health outcomes before technology and be additive to the status quo.

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