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Babylon Health’s CEO on digital health’s greatest growth barrier

Protectionism is digital health's greatest hurdle right now, according to Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of UK Health Tech business, Babylon Health.

The global health sector has been slow to adopt technological and analytical innovation over the past decade due to healthcare protectionism, according to Ali Parsa, CEO and Founder of Babylon Health.

The subscription health service effectively places a GP in your phone, and allows you to book virtual GP consultations with doctors who can monitor your health and symptoms, prescribe medication and monitor prescriptions.

The UK-based company raised £25 million (US$32 million) in a funding round at the beginning of 2016.

The recent growth of the digital health industry has been welcomed by entrepreneurs, investors and practitioners, resulting in some significant investment rounds in the US and Europe, in particular.

A tech driven evolution of the sector is, however, happening years behind that its finance, retail or education counterparts.

Many stakeholders inside and out of healthcare have considered the reasons behind this lag and the implications for the still-burgeoning, Health Tech industry.

Parsa identified two main reasons in an interview with Hot Topics.

Firstly, he notes that healthcare has to contend with “one of the most complex entities we know: our body” and the industry is hinged upon our understanding of its processes and mechanisms.

This inherent challenge is well documented; as doctors, nurses, practitioners and researchers continue to discover more in their field, the sector has to shift slightly to accommodate these new learnings.

Parsa’s second point, however, is less well understood.

Healthcare protectionism is, broadly speaking, the practice of shielding a country’s domestic industries, like health and medicine, from foreign competition.

Within the healthcare industry, these limits can come in many forms, including ‘doctor protectionism’ – especially in the US – where foreign-trained immigrant physicians find the path to practicing in a foreign nation riddled with hurdles.

Parsa touches upon this global problem, citing that the multi-billion dollar industry creates a cycle of dependency upon the traditional way of working.

“[Healthcare] is 10% of the UK’s GDP, and 16% of the US’, and those hundreds of billions of dollars of vested interest, everybody who gets a paycheck, now has an interest in the existing system, as well as bettering the future system” he adds.

It’s this contradiction of terms, he believes, that is behind the lethargic pace of the healthcare industry and its relationship with innovation.

It’s a controversial sentiment, countering many who instead attribute the slower adoption of digital technologies to the complex relationships between investors, entrepreneurs, governments, private and/or national health organizations, pharmaceutical companies and their customers.

Once the benefits of data, analytics and new technology are properly evangelized, it is suggested the sector will move together towards a more digital future.

This doesn’t sit well with Parsa, however.

“For those people that believe the industry doesn’t work like this, ask yourselves ‘Why can’t doctors in the US, or India, work in the UK?’ because the human body is the human body, wherever you are.

“The only thing stopping them is the healthcare protectionism that began in the 18th Century, and has remained ever since.”

He concludes on an upbeat note, however, noting that there is “a lot of goodwill, and despite the complex environment, we are overcoming it.”