It can be difficult to pick out the good parts of 2020. Although the pandemic has exposed just how unprepared our health systems were to handle a public health crisis, it also pushed various institutions and businesses to step up their investments in research and development, their uptake of technological innovations, and of course -- the quality of telehealth services. Teladoc Health (NYSE:TDOC) and Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT) are two success stories that exemplify the improvements in digital health to emerge from the year -- and they might use their learnings to continue winning in 2021.
Ruby Gadelrab is CEO and Founder of MDisrupt, a platform that connects digital health companies to the scientists and healthcare industry experts they need to build, commercialize, and scale health products quickly and responsibly. Ruby joined Olivia Zitkus and Corinne Cardina of Fool.com's Healthcare and Cannabis Bureau on a Jan. 22 episode of Fool Live to talk about the strides made by healthcare sector players in 2020.
Olivia Zitkus: I want to start off broadly just by looking at digital health. I'm curious what some of your most interesting observations were in the space in the year that was 2020.
Ruby Gadelrab: That year that one should never talk about, but yes. Let's first start off by maybe defining what digital health is. Digital health is when digital technologies and genomics are used to solve key problems in healthcare, so think things like algorithms, AI, data analytics, wearables, apps, sensors, telemedicine, genetic testing, and personalized medicine. One of the things pre-pandemic is that healthcare was quite slow to adopt digital health and digital technologies. Many of the solutions did exist before the pandemic, but they really did struggle to get adoption. But in that crazy year, that is 2020, the pandemic revealed a couple of big things. The first thing that it revealed was how unprepared our healthcare system was to deal with the event of that magnitude. Secondly, it also revealed some of the inequity and access issues to healthcare services. But there are silver linings and the silver linings are for digital health. It was as if there was a huge fast forward button pushed on the digital health industry. These were in three key themes: the amount of investment, the speed of innovation, and the rate of adoption. And so if we go into to each of those, from the investment perspective, 2020 was one of the highest ever years in digital health investment. There's many, many reports out there, I'd like to use Health. Health report showed that there was $14 billion worth of investment in digital health last year, which is 72% higher than the previous landmark year, which was 2018, that's pretty phenomenal in one year. Second major theme, speed of innovation. In 2020, the FDA issued over 300, I think the last number was 322, and I looked yesterday, 322 Emergency Use Authorizations for tests and devices during the pandemic. What was so interesting was that many digital health companies who are in tangential spaces, maybe not in virus testing but definitely not in COVID, quickly pivoted to create new solutions for COVID. One example that I think is interesting is a company called Clear Labs. They were doing pathogen testing in the food industry. But as the pandemic hit, they did a quick pivot, and they've developed a fully automated sequencing system to screen and sequence SARS-COVID virus in under 24 hours. Why that's relevant today is because of all the new mutant strains of the COVID virus that we're currently seeing. We talked about investment, we talked about innovation, and then the final point there is rates of adoption. The big hero here is telehealth and virtual care. This is an example of a technology that had been around for years, and years, and years, but had a lot of reluctance from the health system to adopt it. Partly due to privacy concerns, partly due to physicians and patients didn't think it would be a very good experience, and then most importantly, because CMS was only reimbursing telehealth visits in very specific cases. But the pandemic forced patients, providers, and payers to have to experience it different way of delivering telehealth. I think the numbers are in March, CMS reported that telehealth visits jumped from 10,000 visits per week to over 300,000 visits per week. Of course, that was right in the midst of the most severe part of the pandemic. We do expect those numbers to come down, but I do think the cat is out of the bag when it comes to telehealth and virtual care.