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Separating hype from reality in health tech

Data: Kaiser Family Foundation Health Apps and Information Survey; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Tech companies trying to disrupt the health care system still have a long way to go.

Why it matters: Splashy health tech announcements are everywhere, but many are more hype than reality, according to a poll conducted for this column.

By the numbers: 70% of the people we surveyed say they’ve used the internet to research symptoms or learn more about health conditions. And 51% use apps or other tech tools to track their sleep, fitness or diet.

  • But as people’s needs shift from personal information-gathering into the formal health care system, their tech usage begins to fall.
  • Only 44% have accessed their medical records online, and fewer than 25% have used the internet to manage chronic conditions, mental health, or their health care spending.

Yes, but: Across the board, young people are more likely to go online for some part of their health care needs.

  • Nearly half of 18-44 year-olds, for example, have used the internet to research a provider — compared with just 32% of patients older than 45.

The big picture: In Silicon Valley, where I have lived and worked for over 25 years, “disruption” is a buzzword and a goal unto itself. And in health tech, promises of “disruption” run the gamut from coverage to payment to actual care.

  • Apple, Eli Lilly and a startup called Evidation Health recently announced plans for an iPhone and Apple Watch feature they say could help detect Alzheimer’s.
  • Startups like San Francisco-based Forward offer concierge primary care that uses a slew of high-tech tools, in an office modeled on the experience of using an app.
  • And of course there’s the most famous example of a failed promise of disruptive health tech: Theranos.

The bottom line: It’s time to pay close, serious attention to what is real and what is hype in health tech.

  • This conversation, which has been the province of investors, tech companies and the business press, warrants more serious and objective questions about the effects on people’s health, privacy, and their health spending.