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Envisioning the Future of Health through the Eyes of a Reporter

CNBC Health and Tech reporter Christina Farr says the healthcare industry is an interesting one to watch with technology and start-ups shaping its future.

Christina Farr

Health and Tech Reporter, CNBC

How did you get into health care IT and where did your passion stem from?

I started out my career in tech journalism by covering enterprise technology, like cloud and machine, but I quickly developed a passion for health IT. It was a corner of the market that seemed to be growing quickly back in 2011, especially in the wake of government reforms designed to move health care from paper-based to digital systems under the HITECH Act. Despite that, I noticed that few reporters were covering the space, especially when compared to trends like dating apps, gaming and social media. Eventually, I decided to report on it full-time. 

Why would you encourage more people to join the conversation of health care technology?

One of the challenges that entrepreneurs face when they’re building new health technologies is a lack of interest from consumers. It’s natural for people to avoid thinking about their health when they’re not sick. In my view, health-technology journalists face a similar problem: It’s not easy to write about the topic in a way that grabs readers, especially when it’s not top of mind. 

That said, it’s definitely worth trying. Health care might be insular and complicated, but there’s a lot of value in explaining to the average reader how it really works. And when folks care enough to join the conversation, things can change. 

An example of that is the push to get insurance companies and medical record vendors to open up access to their health data, so patients can share it with their doctors, caregivers and so on. That used to be an obscure policy topic, but now we’re seeing big technology companies advocate for patients, including Apple and Alphabet, and a rising awareness among consumers who have read one of many articles written about the issue. 

You recently tweeted: “This is definitely going to be the year where all the health-tech start-ups selling to employers will go from doing one thing well (diabetes, depression or musculoskeletal, e.g.) to everything, either through build or buy.” We’d love if you could elaborate on this statement.

I spend a lot of time on my beat talking to benefits folks at the largest companies in America. For the most part, I’m hearing them tell me that they’re overwhelmed by all the digital health companies out there. Many of these companies will specialize, so they only offer solutions for diabetes or musculoskeletal conditions, for instance. But employers are increasingly looking for a vendor that can solve all of these problems. I predict there will be some kind of private equity ‘roll up’ of several of these start-ups into one larger, more comprehensive offering. 

What advice would you give health care technology start-ups?

Don’t assume that you’re the first person to have that idea. There are a lot of problems to be tackled in health care, but there are also reasons why they haven’t been solved already. Network with those who have tried and failed. At the very least, you’ll probably learn something about the pitfalls to avoid if you continue down the challenging path of starting a health-tech company. Oh, and I agree with Omada Health’s CEO Sean Duffy, who recently argued in a CNBC op-ed that digital health players should avoid calling themselves “start-ups” as it doesn’t earn much respect from potential customers.

How are health care institutions benefiting from shifting toward technology?

Health care institutions are finally waking up to the idea that they should care about the needs of the customer. Some of them are reacting to potential competition from Amazon, which is notoriously consumer-centric, while others are reacting to recent trends, such as the rise of high-deductible plans. Technology can help them as they start to offer more tools for transparency, appointment booking, check-ins with patients and so on. 

I also see an important role in new tools that can help patients figure out how to navigate the health care system: Should they stay home, see a doctor or go straight to urgent care? Finally, there’s a big role for technology in speeding up traditional processes in the pharma and biotech world, such as drug discovery and clinical trial recruitment. 

What is something you would like to see in 2019 within the health care tech industry?

More transparency from the big technology players, including Amazon and Alphabet, about what they plan to do in health. I’ve enjoyed reporting on their internal projects, but I’d like to see them speak out more about why they’re interested in the sector and what they hope to accomplish. I can understand tech companies tend to pride themselves on their secrecy to get an edge on rivals, but I think health care is different as human lives are at stake. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the health care industry, upcoming trends or your experiences for industry leaders to know?

2019 will be the year of the employer. Last year, we saw the formation of alliances like Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan to take on some of the biggest problems with health care from an employer standpoint. There’s also an interesting initiative at Comcast in partnership with Independence Health Group, and many employers are involved with another group called Health Transformation Alliance. 

Employers are increasingly becoming fed up with the status quo, and, unlike the average consumer, they have a lot of money and power at their disposal to do something about it. Watch this space.

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