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Terminology matters: Digital Health or Tech and Aging?

Is there a difference between health tech and aging tech? A friend told me about a comment from an arrogant investor (that may seem redundant to some). The observation was that ‘aging’ was not important, health is THE topic and subsumes (overrides) aging. Do you buy that? Just ask my daily alerts or search yourself for the term 'aging seniors.'  See that the list starts with NCOA and improving the lives of older adults.  Okay, now do the same for 'digital health' (investment north of $4 billion in 2016). Other than a few blog posts, there is virtually no intersection.  And as for VC focus on the aging demographic?

“Health-care sector is a blunt instrument.” According to one VC who has commented about this, Taimur Hyat, health includes “pharmaceuticals and biotechnology and technology-enabled medical services and devices.” He noted that greater specificity in longevity-related areas may be good investing strategy, “rather than investing broadly in the health-care sector, a very blunt instrument with which to play the longevity theme."  The 'Longevity theme', then -- perhaps evoked with the music 'As Time Goes By' -- can be of interest.  But it is too broad.  Unlike the health sector, which is very, uh, precise.

So what are the health investors missing?  Well, Hyat’s own report starts to get at it on page 14 of his ’Silver Lining Investment report – mobility (think Uber or Lyft), chronic care, care coordination and networks.  These topics can include tech-enabled home care, which in a Forbes article, sizes the investment in that area as $200 million within the past year.  Clearly some investors see in-home care services specifically as an opportunity – and also one that is linked to 'longevity' demographics. That startling investment number may be a signal of some deep VC thought about issues in the senior living industry (see Brookdale) or the much-repeated observation from AARP surveys that older adults want to remain in their own home.  

Tech for an aging population must transcend health, home care, and mobility. Where is the investment in training older adults to use existing technology for social engagement, for finding information, or learning a new subject or skill – especially the latter, given the low senior market penetration for owning smartphones among, the devices still cramped by small and touchy screens?  Even investors who supposedly 'get' the concept of longevity and aging are often stuck on investing in senior housing – which may be overbuilt due to poor understanding of the prospective market. Consider the late move in ages (mid-80s), the frailty of the resident population and the limited savings of prospects.  Perhaps this is a factor in why they don’t move in? Instead, perhaps they are part of the 60% of those aged 80+ that still live in what is now termed a NORC.  Instead of turning over the oldest populations in our cities to social services groups, perhaps a VC or two can consider finding ways to monetize ideas like mitigating loneliness and isolation, for example. Today non-profits own that space, guaranteeing limits on scalability and broad impact.

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Thanks for raising an important point.  Hope investors are paying attention, knowing that failure to invest in products that support "healthy" aging, including for those aging with disabilities/chronic conditions, translates into cost growth across the healthcare delivery system.  And those costs find their way into premium increases, creating a drag across the economy.  Time to connect the dots  . . . 

Can you say "gerontophobia?"


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