Skip to main content

Digital Health Takes Center Stage as CES 2022 Opens

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   January 04, 2022

The pandemic may be taking its toll on the massive consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, but it can't dampen the enthusiasm for digital health innovation.

As CES 2022 kicks off in Las Vegas this week, the effects of a two-year-old pandemic are quite evident— not only on the diminished size of the once-massive event, but also on the surge of interest in digital health innovation.

"We're much more substantive this year," says Rene Quashie, vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which hosts the annual event. "The continuing digital transformation of healthcare has certainly been influenced by COVID … and we're seeing a lot of interest in" new technologies and processes.

No more than a decade ago, digital health was limited to a portion of one conference hall, dominated by fitness bands, early-edition smartwatches, and exercise equipment tailored to the worried well. Some payers showed an interest in the space, but the healthcare community steered clear. Health systems and healthcare providers didn't trust consumer-facing technology (though some did envy the popularity), and they felt the data wasn't useful for clinical outcomes.

Fast forward to present day, and the world has changed. Digital health had been evolving in the years leading up to the pandemic, claiming more and more space on the show floor and claiming its own program track. Not only insurers but healthcare organizations are paying attention, driven by a surge of interest in tools and technology that take healthcare out of the hospital and clinic and into the homes and daily lives of consumers.

In a December 20, 2021, press release, CTA announced that more than 100 "health companies" would "take center stage at CES," offering presentations and exhibits in the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center and taking part in panels and other events as part of the digital health summit. Aside from vendors large and small, the line-up included representatives from several health systems, including Ascension, Providence Health, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Among the panels that had been scheduled to take place were conversations about using health tech to advance health equity, bias in the use of AI, and mental health innovation. Some of those conversations will be virtual, as positive COVID tests and vendors and participants reducing their in-person presence is forcing organizers to adjust on the fly, but the scramble hasn't reduced interest.

Shifting The Focus to Digital Health

In a first for CES, the closing keynote—which has been shifted to a virtual presentation—features a healthcare industry executive: Abbott CEO and Board Chairman Robert Ford (whose company is providing the rapid tests so that in-person attendees can be screened for the virus).

"Technology improves lives, and now more than ever, we are witnessing technology's incredible impact on healthcare, allowing us to take better control of our health," CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said in an October 2021 press release announcing the keynote—the first to feature a healthcare company. "We've seen a rapid shift in healthcare innovation, with technology leading the charge to bring quality healthcare to all global citizens."

"CES is the ideal stage to spotlight how technology is allowing people to take control of their health," Abbott's Ford said. "Health is at the center of our ability to live a full life, and the acceleration of health technology has the potential to improve more lives in more places than ever before. We look forward to sharing some of the latest health tech advancements and future possibilities at CES 2022."

Much of that is due to COVID-19, which spurred health systems to shift from in-person care to virtual care, including telehealth platforms and digital health tools such as mHealth apps, smart devices, and wearables. Suddenly health systems were looking for new platforms to deliver care to the home and connect with patients on demand.

According to a CTA survey conducted in 2021, since March 2020, some 20% of U.S. households used online health services for the first time, and 20% planned to continue that trend. Roughly one-quarter of those surveyed now use air purifiers, 23% possess smart or connected health devices, and 19% now use connected sports or fitness equipment.

And the healthcare industry has gradually learned to take an interest in consumer-facing technology. Hundreds of health systems across the world are using smartwatches, fitness bands, and other devices in pilots and programs, with the understanding that data coming from these devices doesn't necessarily have to be clinical-grade to be useful. For example, organizations like Brigham and Women's Hospital and Cedars-Sinai have used the Fitbit to track simple activity in certain populations, knowing that daily step counts can be used to chart post-operative recovery, even one's mental state.

Just as importantly, the consumer-facing health and wellness industry is making its products more in tune with clinical goals. Apple, Google, and Amazon have long been involved in the healthcare space, and Oracle's pending purchase of EHR company Cerner is a certain sign of that interest.

A Pandemic Pushes the Narrative

While the smart home concept has been percolating for years, COVID-19 has kicked the trend into overdrive. With more people working and attending school from their homes, the market is flush with connected devices and platforms that emphasize home-based monitoring.

During the pandemic a number of healthcare and research organizations launched programs that used wearables, including smartwatches, fitness bands, sensor-embedded clothing, and even rings, to track a user's biometric data and identify early signs of the coronavirus. Vendors are incorporating some of those characteristics into their products.

CES, in fact, often stands as a window into the creativity inherent in innovation. A walk through the many exhibit halls at past events often revealed a dizzying display of toys and tools, including smart toilet seats, refrigerators, toothbrushes, mattresses, easy chairs, and clothing. It has also given us a glimpse into emerging trends, including AR and VR, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, gaming in healthcare, and drones.

This points to a perhaps underappreciated value of CES. This is where the consumer tech industry gets an idea of what will and won't work, what trends will take off and what will likely fail to catch the public's eye. For a healthcare industry that has long struggled to understand patient engagement, CES offers clues as to what they should be looking at, and how they should be shaping the patient experience of the future.

This year's event is no different. The pandemic has put the emphasis on remote care, and consumer-facing companies are looking to capitalize on that with devices and platforms that give people healthcare services on-demand, in the home. And with a corresponding increase in remote patient monitoring and home-based care, healthcare organizations are looking for new tools that their patients can and will use at home to track and collect biometric data.

One such area of heightened interest this year is telemental health. The nation has seen a surge in depression, anxiety, stress, and burnout, along with an increase in substance abuse. The crisis has pushed many healthcare organizations to launch or expand mental and behavioral health services delivered via virtual care, and it's caused a corresponding increase in direct-to-consumer products, including wearables that measure stress and depression, mHealth apps that connect users to care providers, peer support and other resources, even wearables that offer self-help exercises through AR and VR or nerve stimulation.

Other trends to watch, according to Quashie, include digital therapeutics, using digital health to address health equity, and women's health.

"COVID has been a great experiment for" several digital health innovations, he says. "No question about it. It has exposed for the first time for many providers the ability to leverage virtual care … and to push out the boundaries."

“COVID has been a great experiment for (several digital health innovations.) No question about it. It has exposed for the first time for many providers the ability to leverage virtual care … and to push out the boundaries.”

Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: Photo courtesy CES


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Once a haven for health and wellness fanatics, CES 2022 has expanded its digital health footprint to attract not only payers, but more and more healthcare organizations.
  • Healthcare providers were once wary of consumer-facing technology but are now realizing the value in tools and platforms that allow patients to manage their own health.
  • This year's trends to watch include telemental health, digital therapeutics, women's health, and the use of digital health to address health equity.


Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.