Note: If the title hasn’t given it away yet, this piece is littered with Marvel references. I believe people on the frontlines against COVID-19 are no less than superheroes. As an inclusive innovation proponent myself, metaphorized and simplified pop-culture references (with objective fandom, of course) also abound. Marvel fans, you’re welcome!

282,000+ lives lost and over 4.1 million afflicted as I write this! COVID-19’s incapacitating punch to humanity’s solar plexus has had healthcare systems reeling.

A couple of years ago, Thanos’s “at random; dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike” plan of genocide (endearingly, ‘the snap’) in Avengers: Infinity War didn’t seem as worrisome beyond the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for dummies). Doctor Strange either didn’t see this coming or didn’t much care to warn us of the impending coronavirus pandemic.

But unlike Thanos’s ‘merciful’ snap, this one’s more of a slow burn. One that hinges around the fragility and unpreparedness of our archaic, frail, and ill-equipped healthcare systems shielded only by a defiant human spirit (quite like Iron-Man’s sole onslaught against Thanos). As Nick Fury would put it, we are “hopelessly, hilariously outgunned” to address a disaster of such scale.

Could Digital Health offer some reprieve, equipping humanity with a fighting chance of surviving nature’s next blitzkrieg?

Possibly.

If Digital Health (DH) were an avenger, it would assuredly personify Iron-Man’s tech genius (futuristic #AR, #AI, #robotics, nano-tech, et al.). As an innovation enabler who loves to coalesce divergent thinking, I’d love for it to be Captain America – empathic, worthy of leading the charge with integrity, assembling all of healthcare’s arsenals (also, the only one to knock Thanos’s grin off his smug face, see gif above). However, given DH’s developmental arc and the fact that it’s yet to come of age, we’ll lean more towards Spider-Man, the friendly neighbourhood superhero.

Spider-Man requires no introduction; he does require a neighbourhood to prove his worth. And he needs time. Similarly, DH needs a supportive ecosystem that facilitates optimal investment, along with timely nudges for robust innovation testing, validation, and deployment mechanisms. Put simply, it needs ample opportunities from the healthcare industry to prove its worth.

DH has its fair share of scrutiny and adversaries to contend with: navigating ambiguity, trying to weave structure out of chaotic systems, test more sustainable business models, usability and real-world evidence factors, practitioners’ force of habit, trust among the public – all that good stuff. While “with great power comes great responsibility”, that’s quite a lot of responsibility for the rookie.

Then, there’s that collective industrial inertia.

Healthcare has watched other industries adopt and benefit from digital tools from afar just as your overly shy friend watches others dance, taking forever to join in. That’s inertia. And inertial reluctance costs time. Time, when utilized efficiently, helps differentiate sound tactical preparedness from its polar opposite (exemplified by the differential response to COVID-19 by governments).

Has the pandemic essentially caused the proliferation of DH? Correlation, sure; it doesn’t necessarily imply causation.

DH tools/technologies, in their myriad manifestations, have been lying in plain sight for quite a while. So has their potential for staggering impact. Potential is often correlated with ‘fundability’ and ‘proof of potential’ correlated with ‘proof of efficacy’; most times, it’s myopic wishfulness by both the funder and funded.

Telehealth, for instance, had been often mulled over, talked about. Then, its vote of confidence saw a significant uptick – USD 788 M in capital, up from USD 220 M investment in 2019 Q1. While telehealth tops the list of possible paradigm-shifting digital technologies, there has been unprecedented funding into digital health before these unprecedented times. However, funding alone isn’t nearly enough for staggering impact. Potential hasn’t translated much into efficacy/utility – billions invested haven’t translated into billions in revenue. Neither have many entrepreneurs’ idealistic value-creation pitches witnessed fruition. Correlation and confounding factors (sigh)!

Then, out of the blue, destiny (or Thanos) arrives; how poetic! A critical ask such as dealing with COVID-19 and the mercenary is mobilised. What’s more, he’s expected to go toe-to-toe with a pandemic level threat. Poor Peter Parker.

Except, Parker volunteered. He chose to make himself useful, punching (technically, webbing) way above his weight (see his tête-à-tête with Thanos below). Quite like how digital health variants – telemedicine, virtual stuff – ICU oversight, consults, visits – triage chatbots, wireless diagnostics – have stepped up to the fight. And right now, they’re our strongest ally, helping our more seasoned avengers – those on the frontlines.

Potential + Preparation = Productivity

Now, the new guy seems pretty promising. You even start to believe in the superhero. Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man, he’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, isn’t he? That glory soon compounds to even more responsibility. All of a sudden, backers expect the promising entrant to lead the pack and if they’re impatient, are left disappointed.

When does that leap from potential to efficacy happen? The answer: In due time.

Just how innovators and enablers, forged in the crucibles of a post-COVID-19 economy, will keep chipping away.

The old will give way to the new (think Captain America passing the baton or more appropriately, his ‘vibranium shield’ to the Falcon or transferring charge to Captain Marvel).

While reminiscing the triumphs of the old, rather unsustainable models of care, we would look at digital health with reassuring pride.

Robust solutions will subtly germinate, going far beyond resilience, into anti-fragility and emerge with both asset value and value to the community. For digital health to capably harness and channel its full potential for meaningful impact at scale (not unlike the massive energy from all 6 infinity stones combined), it would have to embrace the pain. And for DH to survive, we would look to an equally attuned system that “reorients its spirit to better heal the body (and the mind)” and embraces digital not for its potential or profits alone, but for purpose.

Until then, dear Digital Health, let’s hope that the industry, stakeholders, and enablers at large, ‘love you 3000’!

Devmalya Sarkar is a health-tech innovation strategist and open innovation enabler. Currently, a member of HIMSS India’s Innovation & Start-ups Committee, he previously led HITAB’s digital health innovation impact in South Asia and is currently contemplating contributing to another worthy cause that can enable the next wave of meaningful health-tech innovation.

Other than health, tech, and innovation, he enjoys moonwalking, minimalism, and thought experiments; you can find him on Twitter @DevmalyaS.