By Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff, M.D.
Digiceuticals. They sound a little like a Pokémon character, but in reality, they are the latest, fast-growing trend in health care. Moreover, they are within the reach of your smart phone or tablet.
Digiceuticals are also known as digital therapeutics, or digital health tools and services. Think of them as digital medicine. The idea behind them is that they can help you improve your health by helping you to better treat, manage or prevent a medical condition. Some digiceuticals are used in conjunction with medication, while others are designed to replace the need for them altogether, often with lower costs and almost no danger from potential side effects.
Some people think of wellness apps as digiceuticals, such as one that purports to help you get calm by regularly asking you to take a few minutes to pause and relax. In the still-evolving world of digital therapeutics, however, clinicians are rejecting that term for any digital health solution that doesn’t show validated results through clinical trials.
In that sense, MoovCare, described by its developers as a “web-based patient-reported follow-up solution,” appears to fit the definition of a digiceutical. The Israeli-designed digital health solution assists lung cancer patients by asking them to self-report hard data like weight along with measures such as pain and energy levels, and appetite. Sophisticated algorithms measure the findings, and help spur earlier interventions in care. A recent trial found that patients with advanced lung cancer who used MoovCare lived 7½ months longer.
Last year, CVS Health agreed to partner with San Francisco-based Big Health, which developed the evidence-based Sleepio app to treat insomnia. Sleepio uses a virtual sleep expert and a virtual narcoleptic dog. Sounds cute and entertaining enough, but what Sleepio does is to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, through a mobile device to help users make changes in behavior that promote better sleep.
With that agreement, Sleepio became an app that employers or health plans can add to a list of solutions that they will reimburse for, just like they do for prescription medication. With the dangers posed by opioid addiction curtailing the prescription of this class of medicine for insomnia, an app like Sleepio has the potential to be a game changer. The American College of Physicians endorses the use of CBT as a treatment for insomnia before sleeping pills.
Sleepio wasn’t the first. In 2016, a company called Omada Health broke ground when Medicare agreed to reimburse the cost of its digital diabetes prevention program.
Digiceuticals are proving to be big business. Investors have poured nearly $40 billion into digital health startups since 2011, with 40 percent of that figure raised in 2018 and 2019, according to January article published on ModernHealthcare.com. In the first three quarters of 2019, digiceutical startups raised more than half a billion dollars, according to a report from CB Insights, which tracks venture capital investments.
So how will digiceuticals impact the way physicians deliver care? The potential to make better evidence-based decisions for care treatment plans based on powerful data-driven analytics is incredibly attractive. The Food and Drug Administration is approving more and more digiceuticals as legitimate treatments that can be prescribed by doctors, which clears the way for them to also be covered by health plans. One such FDA-approved app is reSET-O, which provides interactive therapy lessons to opioid abusers under a clinician’s supervision. reSET-O is in use at substance abuse facilities across the country today.
I’m cautiously optimistic about this trend in health care, and look forward to seeing how digiceuticals will be applied to improve the work of physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists like me. I am in no way worried they can replace the hands-on work that physicians must do in the exam room to make an accurate diagnosis of a torn ACL or debilitating plantar fasciitis. But if digiceuticals make it possible to shorten a patient’s rehabilitation time, or help them learn how to be more flexible and develop better habits for self care, then it will be another valuable tool that fits in with my overall mission to help patients get back to their best.
I hope you have a healthy day.
Dr. Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff heads the Non-Surgical Center of Texas, focusing on non-surgical treatments to relieve pain and repair injuries. A former professional tennis player who competed on the WTA circuit, Dr. Zaharoff has been utilizing regenerative injection treatments including Stem Cell Therapy, PRP Injection Therapy and Prolotherapy for more than a decade. Learn more about her at www.drzmd.com. You can follow her on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/DrZaharoff.