Interview with Drew Schiller about the Future of Digital Health

Drew Schiller is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Validic, a health and wellness technology company that operates as digital health’s Rosetta Stone for disparate health data. Before starting Validic, Drew was the principal at a Web development firm as well as the founder and developer of a dietary nutrition website. Companies that benefit from Validic’s API are able to build products that pull data from a variety of mobile health apps, wearables and in-home medical devices. Drew is at the forefront of mHealth innovation. You can follow him at his personal blog:

1) When we first met, the ANT+ Fit SDK was being heralded as the way health apps were going to be able to communicate with one another. Obviously a lot has changed since then – but not enough. Data interoperability is still a major design hurdle for many digital health innovators. Now mobile manufactures like Google, Apple and Samsung are trying to become conduits and interpreters of these disparate data sources. How have the advent of Google Fit and Apple HealthKit affected Validic’s business model?

It has not actually changed our business model at all. In fact, it has accelerated things quite a bit. The entrance of Apple and Google into this area has created awareness. Anytime you have the world’s largest leading consumer electronics companies entering a new market, the entire ecosystem benefits. This has resulted in an accelerated interest from consumers in personalized generated data. We’re seeing accelerated interest from the investment community. These are signals digital health is here to stay — that all of these massive companies are placing huge bets. So, from that perspective, their entry has been tremendous for Validic.

Furthermore, these solutions are doing little to mitigate that a lot of digital health device manufacturers don’t use open standard protocols because they want to add additional security layers on their devices and/or they want to stream additional information that is not part of standard protocols. Also, you have fitness tracking devices that are streaming all kinds of proprietary information, and they do not want just anybody to have access to that because the analysis of that data is part of their secret sauce.

In order to actually connect with these devices at the device level, you oftentimes have to work direct with the manufacturer to get the proper SDK, the proper coding for it to decrypt the device’s serialization. In that sense, true interoperability has to happen at the data layer. So, once the data is off the device that’s where we can standardize and normalize the data. That’s where we can provide some sort of method to create interoperability. That’s where we play. We will connect directly to Bluetooth devices if that’s where we need to be. We will also connect directly to APIs in the cloud. We also have mechanisms with many companies to send data directly to us. So, we allow for interoperability wherever the data is coming from. Our methods are a different approach than a lot of other players in this space, which gives us an advantage.

2) Piggybacking off this topic, futurist Graeme Codrington made a bold prediction about Apple regarding Health Tech in a recent Fast Company article that by 2025, “There is no doubt that with their iOS 8 released Health app and their integration of myriad health apps with the Apple Watch, Apple are making a play in this space, and by 2025 are likely to be the world’s leading remote and proactive health care company.” Do you believe there is merit to assume a product company like Apple or Samsung will end up evolving into a health-care company?

I certainly think that they will have divisions of their companies that are successful, but can you name any dominant player in the health-care industry today? I mean, there is no one dominant player. So, I think that statement, albeit sensational, is a fallacy. Samsung already has a massive business building MRI machines. They build X-ray machines and X-ray equipment. They already have a pretty massive health-care business. It is not on the consumer side, but it certainly is something that’s core to their global entity.

I do believe companies like Apple will be a big factor in health care in 2025. I think that they are going to continue to make great devices. I think that they’re going to sell boatloads of them because that is the game that they’re in. If you look at what they have done with iPhones, look at what they have done with the iPad, these are transformative platforms and I think the Apple watch has the opportunity to do that too eventually. Do I think companies like Apple and Samsung are going to solve all of the world’s problems related to health care? No, I do not. But, do I think they’re going to provide a really valuable product that adds even more value to the health-care system over time? Yes, I do.

3) The narrative regarding wearables is fairly pervasive in health tech, but how is the Internet of Things (sensors outside of wearable devices) going to change health technology in ways that are currently unexpected?

One way that the Internet of Things in general is improving things is that there is now scale. The fact that sensors are becoming cheaper, and more cost efficient, and yet give higher resolution of data I think is really helpful.

You now have smart asthma inhalers that are able to measure your breathing; in real time when you’re inhaling the device it gives you the correct calculated dosage of medicine, as well as the GPS coordinates of the location that you’re taking that dosage. With this type of data we can start to look at casual factors at a population level. For instance, determine where people are having the most number of attacks and start to look at environmental conditions. At the population health level, you can ask questions like, “In this particular area, at this particular time of day, asthma rates are spiking by 50 percent. Why?” We are starting to be able to do interesting things like that at scale with these type of connections.

There is a company called Aldebaran building a prototype for a next generation robot. It is five and a half feet tall. It would be in your home and it has the ability to not only communicate with you, but also has the ability to help you up if you fall. So, this is great for in-home elder care. It also has the ability to help with medication adherence. It has the ability to help you decide the pill you’re supposed to take and it can record you actually taking it. Then, if there are any problems, it has the ability to call for help. It’s a 24-hour, always-on solution for care for people who need that in their homes.

A company called Proteus is doing amazing things with ingestibles. You wear a patch on your stomach and you ingest a pill, and when the pill is in your body it is activated and powered by the enzymes in your stomach and communicates with the patch (that’s on your skin). It tracks your dosage, the medication, and the time that it was taken. So, it knows what was in your body and at what time. This type of technology could save the health-care industry billions of dollars due to wasted and unused medication consumption.

4) Putting yourself in the role of a futurist, what are your hopes and predictions for health tech over the next decade?

We’re starting to see some really interesting things. One thing I will say about health care, is that unfortunately health care is slow to adopt new technologies. This is an industry that, for some good reasons actually, still largely relies on pagers and fax machines for everyday communication. The primary reason why adoption is slow is because new technologies that are brought into health care need to be bulletproof. They need to be perfect — or as perfect as you can get them — because when you are dealing with data and/or a message that could make or break a patient’s well-being you really need to make sure delivery is perfect.

Health care has the opportunity to have massive disruption from ideas that have taken place outside health care. I think that we are starting to see that already taking shape with the current wearables movement. Devices like Fitbits and Jawbone are now commonplace. What is exciting is we are starting to see new sensors that were developed in areas outside of health, but are starting to make their way to health care.

For example, there is a company called SunSprite that we connect with, which is a wearable tracker you wear on your person to measure the amount of sunlight exposure you get in a day. This is great for patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sunlight trackers, light exposure meters, these things have been available for a long time, but never in a wearable context for health care (in this case specifically for patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder). So, that is one example of the future.

Another good example is we are seeing John Hancock Life Insurance, very recently, are starting to use wearable trackers as a metric for adjusting your life insurance premiums in real time. Just like you can go to your Progressive auto insurer and they put a device in your car, and they adjust your auto insurance rates based on how well you drive, this is something where your life insurance company is giving you a wearable tracker and adjusting your life insurance premiums based on how you live.

There is an abundance of opportunities for us to learn from other industries, and apply it to health, and apply new technologies to health in really innovative ways. I think that some of the most innovative things that we’re going to see moving forward are also better ways of making health care more frictionless and seamless.

5) Validic has had to keep up with a market that has been in a constant state of flux, iteration, and evolution. What are three key product development and/or product user experience concepts (specific to health) that you could highlight from your experience that can benefit digital health creators?

1) I would say getting the user experience right — and this is for app developers and device makers alike — in my experience patients who have a specific disease state… they’re happy to have monitoring around that disease, but they don’t want to be constantly reminded that they have a disease. So, for example, there is a company that’s developing a continuous blood pressure wearable. In their initial user testing, they had the blood pressure reading on the watch face every time you look at your wrist. Well, patients with hypertension, they are just trying to look at the time. They don’t want to be in a meeting at work wondering if the meeting is starting late and they look down for the time and they’re reminded that, oh, by the way, I have hypertension, right? So, from a user interface perspective, it’s important to provide users the quantification and provide the measurements, but don’t necessarily remind the patients of the problem. In fact, some of the user feedback that I’ve heard are things like, “Can you just not even show me the data and just send it directly to my physician because I want them to have it? It’s important that they have it, but it’s not important for me to see it all the time, right?” So, I think that getting UX right is always going to be important.

2) Patients only care about their health when they have to. So, what I mean by that is, for example, if I’m a 45-year-old, obese man and I know I need to cut down on my meat, and salt intake, and maybe drink less, certainly I already know all of that, right? But, I’m not going to be overly worried about it until I have a pre-heart disease episode where the situation highlights I need to make a change, right? This reality is a really hard problem to solve in health care. It is something that I think health-care companies often forget. They’re solving for future problems, as if people always care about what is going on today. Patients generally only care when something “happens.” That doesn’t mean that we can’t affect positive behavior change before that negative event occurs. We just need to incentivize the behavior change to something that the patient will care about. I think that’s something that is often missed, we design like the person or patient is going to care at the onset without a trigger or incentive.

3) What we’re starting to see is that patients who do use a wearable tracker are also more likely to keep track of other information. When you have a person that has genuinely adopted a wearable, you now have identified a person who has made self-tracking part of their routine. This trend is also being driven organically somewhat by the growing market share of wearables. This is important because the desirable experience for this segment is different than the casual user. If the digital health experience is tailored to this user type — knowing that the efficacy of a particular intervention can potentially have broader user experience implications — we likely can increase overall usage by lowering the adoption barrier.



The idea of having quick feedback to your health efforts, or lack thereof is promising, but personally invasive, especially when considering sending the information directly to the provider, or displaying on your wrist for passersby to see. I know that sometimes I don’t do as well as I’d like, and sharing all of my failures can feel discouraging and embarrassing. I also feel it’s important to filter my results with the circumstances involved, which numbers just don’t do. For example, whenever I get vaccinated, my blood sugars elevate for a day or so.