STAT health tech reporter says speed in the sector is a double-edged sword

About Karen Blum

Karen Blum is AHCJ’s core topic leader on health IT. An independent journalist in the Baltimore area, she has written health IT stories for publications such as Pharmacy Practice News, Clinical Oncology News, Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, General Surgery News and Infectious Disease Special Edition.

Erin Brodwin

Erin Brodwin

Erin Brodwin is a San Francisco-based health tech reporter at STAT. Since 2019, she’s covered artificial intelligence in health care, written breaking news about health tech companies and covered wearable technologies and their impact on digital health. Her recent stories include a profile of the first chief medical officer of a maternal and family virtual care platform called Maven Clinic and an article about Apple’s new features for sharing health data with doctors and tracking trends. She also is one of four co-authors of STAT’s free biweekly Health Tech electronic newsletter. Previously, Erin covered health tech for Business Insider.

I interviewed Erin recently about some of the trends in health tech and her advice to AHCJ members looking to break into this space. She advises us to think about whom tech innovation benefits or harms, its significance more broadly and whether something billed as innovative truly is. (Responses have been lightly edited and condensed.)

What do you like about covering health IT? 

I love covering it because you can be writing about something that literally hits the market the next day and starts impacting thousands of patients — just because the company decided to launch. I love the fast pace of it. That is a double-edged sword in many ways because often things can be rushed, and people can be harmed in the process. One of the things that I try to cover in my reporting is shedding a light on the communities and people who are at risk when these powerful companies unveil their innovations. Often, those people are people who are most marginalized in our society, including women and people of color.

What are some of the hot trends and topics in health IT that our members should know about?

There are so many. One, obviously, is wearables and consumer devices transitioning into legitimate or FDA-approved devices. We saw the Apple watch just leap from a very consumer-oriented, very nice to have, fun, expensive device … to very much a health care device in that its technology has been approved by the FDA to help pinpoint the signs of atrial fibrillation, a heart condition. With that approval, which happened in record time — about a month — it’s really opened the door for a whole host of other companies to come in and try to do the same thing. Fitbit, now part of Google, is already following in Apple’s footsteps doing their own heart study.

One of the things I’ve been writing a lot about is how companies in this space are pivoting to court a new category of person I like to call the consumer-patient. This is equal parts someone who is needing to go into the health care system for a specific reason and just an everyday person who wants to be on top of their own health and wellness and manage things. One of the places this is happening really rapidly right now is in a category called digital pharmacy. Companies like Ro and Hims & Hers are going direct to consumer, promising people they can pay in cash and essentially get a lot of their health care needs met just through a website or an app. It’s kind of a fundamental rewriting of the health care system to be cash-oriented. On the other side, we have companies like Iora Health and Cityblock Health that are courting patients on Medicare and Medicaid who are in need and trying to prove to the market that those populations are very much worth paying attention to and that they can very much orient themselves around a business model that can keep them sustainable and can also serve patients who really need it.

What health IT trends are you excited about?

I think two specific things have happened in recent years that are starting to coalesce in a way that’s going to benefit this class of consumer patients. There’s been a kind of reawakening and awareness of, and finally listening to, communities who have been disadvantaged by our traditional health care system and by our criminal justice system for so long. This is primarily Black Americans, Latinx people, and other groups of color and women. That happened at the same time as we had a ravaging pandemic. It suddenly became clear to so many people that we have a system that can discriminate against the people who most need its help and support and its services and who may have been denied them for decades, possibly centuries.

As we’re starting to reckon with that, we’re starting to see in the virtual care and digital health space how companies are moving away from just having statements like “Black Lives Matter” on their websites to really trying to orient their businesses around caring equally for all people. That doesn’t always mean providing the same care to everyone; sometimes, it means focusing on specific subpopulations. So we’ve seen the rise and growth of companies like digital pharmacy and virtual care or virtual first companies courting specific populations. Hurdle is one trying to address mental health issues in the Black community. FOLX is a digital pharmacy catering to the LGBTQ+ community, and I think those are hopefully going to result in better care for all of those populations.

What are you more cautious or skeptical about? 

Companies are often moving too fast and, as a result, harming people. I previously wrote about a company that said it would provide insight into your microbiome and risk of severe disease. It turned out not only were they billing insurance companies in an unfair and illegal way, but also they were lying to consumers about the science behind their products, and in fact, were selling a service that did not improve health or provide any extra information that was clinically useful. That company was since raided by the FBI and filed for bankruptcy, but for every firm like that, there are probably a dozen others.

That’s not to say all companies that are moving fast are doing bad things. Some of them are innovating really fast and helping people. I think Cityblock is a good example of that. They’re courting patients who use Medicaid and Medicare and trying to have people in the community helping others in the community, really listening to patients. It seems like a lot of companies that are trying to innovate with an equity lens are doing some really good work. It remains to be seen whether these will help improve the health of the populations they claim to serve, but so far, it looks good.

What elements constitute a good health tech story: Good characters? Technology? A mix? 

As someone who went to journalism school, I’m often of the opinion that all stories are about people, and all stories need characters to live and breathe and to follow a natural arc from beginning to end. That’s very individual and ultimately is about the human experience and confronting a challenge and overcoming it or learning something new. Often in health tech, you don’t get the opportunity to write as many patient-driven stories as if you’re writing more traditional health care stories or more traditional science, health or wellness stories. To get around that, you can anthropomorphize companies like people — that’s one way of doing it. There’s almost always some kind of natural conflict in the story, so sometimes that’s the center. Any good story has a beginning, middle and end, but also tells a story about where in 2021, in the middle of a pandemic, we are headed with health care. What needs to change or stay the same needs more or less focus? Are we headed to more or less equity? What’s driving that, and who’s at the center or being ignored? Why are certain stories not being told? There’s definitely no set recipe for a good health tech story.

What advice do you have for members covering health IT or looking to get into this space? 

You don’t have to have experience in venture capital, tech, or science, but you do have to have voracious curiosity and a desire to learn and to really dig deep. That can take ages or 15 rejections for every acceptance for an interview. That can take having really hard conversations, so definitely pace yourself and have empathy because health tech stories are fundamentally stories about the human struggle. Be willing to challenge yourself and your own existing beliefs, and reach out to patients, advocates, and company representatives to try to figure out in all these narratives being told, which are obviously all disparate, where is the through line. Figuring that out can take time and definitely requires patience.

What are good questions to ask when writing health IT stories? 

Who does this development benefit? Who does it harm? What story am I telling or not telling? Why is this happening now? What does this signal more broadly about the sector you’re covering? Finally, is this innovation truly innovative, and if so, why?

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