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Today, people are spending more time looking at the world through their phones rather than their eyes. So, why shouldn’t healthcare become more digital, too?

On April 24, Ryohei Goto, partner at US global management consulting company A.T. Kearney, spoke about Japan’s growing relationship with digital healthcare. At an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Healthcare Committee and Digital Health Subcommittee at Tokyo American Club, he explored the impact digital health has on patients and medical professionals, and how the Japanese government might better finance these initiatives.

While the concept of digital health may be new to many readers, interest is growing rapidly. Venture capital invest­ment in health tech rose 59 percent from 2015 to 2016, and in 2017 more than 400 news items appeared on the industry-specific Nikkei Digital Health website while Google returned 7.7 million hits for searches for the term “digital health” in Japanese.

Goto spoke about a variety of new digital health advancements. One is a recent partnership between Inc. and Merck & Co., Inc. to integrate Alexa virtual assistant technology into the treatment of diabetes. “It may sound like a small step in terms of the technological advancements, but, in terms of the influence on consumer behavior, it is a big change,” he said. “Instead of getting an alert from your mobile [device] or an alert from your nurses, you have [Alexa] speaking to you when you actually need to take your medicine.”

Adherence is a big issue in Japan, said Goto, explaining that about 30 percent of people diagnosed with a lifestyle disease stop taking their medication within six months. This obviously has an effect on the total lifetime cost of treating a patient.
Bad adherence results in a 10–15-per­cent loss for the Japanese pharmaceutical industry. Digital health advancements—such as the Abilify MyCite system from Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. and Proteus Digital Health, which comprises a tablet with a digestible sensor, a wear­able patch, and a smartphone app­—are new and effective ways to monitor the in­take of medicine. Doctors and selected family mem­bers can access the app to review adherence.

People receiving mental healthcare are the group most unsatisfied with their current drug-based treatment, and dementia and diabetes combined cost the Japanese healthcare system about ¥20 trillion per year.

“Many mental health patients are still suffering from taking excessive amounts of drugs. They don’t want to take too many drugs because they don’t really see the benefit of it,” Goto said. “But having this mobile intervention does allow them to manage their conditions better without relying too much on drug therapy.”

There are also applications such as Cure­App, which supplies a cognitive behavioral therapy-based treat­ment through games and mental health counseling on a smartphone.

Goto also spoke about the preventative benefits of digital healthcare.

Euglena Co., Ltd. provides a do-it-yourself way for individuals to gain insight into their genes. The data obtained from a simple saliva sample taken at home and sent to a testing center can identify ancestry, disease risk factors, and predisposition for lifestyle diseases.

“Based on the results of your gene testing, [Euglena] will help connect you with the right healthcare providers and physicians who can understand the risks and conditions, and have a more integrated and continual care catering to the specific needs that you may have,” Goto said.

Preventative steps, such as this simple ¥20,000 test, can significantly reduce the cost of a person’s lifetime treatment.

Making healthcare more readily accessible through digital tools in Japan would seem logical, but many question the value and, hence, the funding. Japan’s total healthcare spending market is ¥88 trillion, with just ¥20 trillion of that potentially going toward digital, data, and information and communication tech­nology. But Goto insists that the funding is available, and digital health will free up more funds for other medical needs.

Japan has a major opportunity here, he said in closing. As one of the countries leading in medical innovation, the next step toward digitized healthcare would be to create a space to invest in more forward-thinking and economical ways of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Megan Casson is a writer at Custom Media, publisher of The ACCJ Journal