Healthcare Cost & Quality
| Mar 24 2022

Reporting from a Non-HR Conference: SXSW 2022

Kate Brown
Leader, Center for Health Innovation, Mercer

For the uninitiated, SXSW is a series of festivals and conferences that bring together technology and culture with the goal of making society better.  It is the place to look around the corner to see what’s coming, across all industries. So, for those of us in the employer-sponsored benefits space, here are my top takeaways from an exciting week in Austin at “South By”:

What does AI actually stand for? We’ve been hearing a lot about artificial intelligence (AI) in the benefits space lately, particularly from digital health vendors claiming it can drive better member engagement. But at SXSW, Dr. “Panch” Panchanathan, Director of the National Science Foundation, called for AI to do more for access and inclusion. AI holds tremendous potential to enhance the abilities of the human race, but only if it is built by a representative cross-section of our society. This may well sound like a page out of your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy! Using AI to improve access and inclusion should be a part of your benefits strategy as well. Push your benefit providers to understand their AI roadmaps – and if you think your vendors don’t have AI, think again. Every chat bot you encounter is driven by this technology.

Bonus observation: AI is being used to create “synthetic humans”, or digital representations of humans (like these from Unreal Engine) that can be used in a myriad of ways in the health and benefits space. Imagine a virtual open enrollment fair with a synthetic human concierge to answer questions and guide employees to the best benefits for them. A synthetic human might also someday be your first point of interaction with the healthcare system.

Let’s talk about VR, AR and XR. There’s more to virtual reality (and augmented reality and extended reality) than goofy goggles and flying through canyons on Mars -- these technologies have major implications for health and well-being. One application on display at SXSW by MyndVR is using VR to combat loneliness among seniors. And, compared to a Zoom call, a VR visit with a doctor would allow for “experience” versus “communication” – driving a different cognitive response and perhaps better health outcomes as a result, as this Stanford neuroscientist explained. Using VR/AR/XR to engage patients in new ways will be strongly coupled with the trend toward at-home care, which has grown rapidly in the COVD-19 era. 

Bonus observation: There was some discussion about using VR to provide an immersive training experience for employees. The specific use case was training professional care givers, but I could also see applications across many disciplines as a low-cost, scalable way to on-board new talent.

What the heck is the Metaverse? Simply put, it’s the digital parallel to the physical world, where your virtual self is represented and can engage with other virtual entities. Right now, you’re most likely to encounter the Metaverse in a video game, but let’s think about its future applications in the health space. You might be prescribed a digital therapeutic for depression that you access within the Metaverse, along with medication provided by your local CVS pharmacy (which, btw, filing for patents to sell healthcare services in the Metaverse). Far-fetched as that sounds, we may only be a few years away from health plans that include Metaverse coverage.

Bonus observation: Ultimately, the Metaverse may not be about living a digital life. Instead, we can use it as a learning to help us to better understand the physical world. For example, the Metaverse may include immersive experiences of various cultures around the world, which can teach people about the importance of diversity and inclusion. 

What do Salesforce, Samsung and Best Buy all have in common? Probably a lot, but the answer I’m looking for is that they all have Chief Medical Officers responsible for driving their business strategies into the healthcare field.  Salesforce, the world’s largest CRM platform, is looking to build networks of patients on its Health Cloud platform. If you needed evidence that the money is in the data in healthcare, look no further than this move by Salesforce to turn its considerable resources toward the space. Best Buy, everyone’s favorite big box electronic store, has been focusing on in-home health support for seniors, and is deploying its Geek Squad into homes to help people who are less tech-literate gain access to potentially life-saving devices. Finally, Samsung is investing heavily in technology embedded within appliances and devices that can monitor health status, including monitoring activities of daily living that could signal health issues.

Bonus observation: Companies that just a few years ago had no business in healthcare are investing heavily. Hopefully this means more positive disruption, and not just another cost driver in the system.

There’s a lot to be excited about where the leading edge of technology intersects with healthcare. While the tech trends I’ve described seem futuristic, they are being adopted in many fields already and will make their way into healthcare, too. Employers that keep a sharp eye out for what’s coming will be better prepared for a future that looks quite different from today’s reality.

More Mercer posts

Show More
Show Less

Subscribe to receive insights straight to your inbox

Insights in Your Inbox

Register for Mercer US Health News to receive weekly e-mail updates.

*Required Fields