If you’re used to health tech meetings filled with go-go entrepreneurs and the investors who love them, a conference of academic technology experts can be jarring.

Speakers repeatedly pointed to portions of the digital health superhighway that sorely need more concrete – in this case, concrete knowledge. One researcher even used the word “humility.”

The gathering was the annual symposium of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). AMIA’s founders were pioneers. Witness the physician featured in a Wall Street Journal story detailing his use of “advanced machines [in] helping diagnose illness” – way back in 1959.

That history should provide a sobering perspective on the distinction between inevitable and imminent (a difference at least as important to investors as intellectuals), even on hot-button topics such as new data uses involving the electronic health record (EHR). 

I’ve been one of the optimists. Earlier this year, my colleague Adrian Gropper and I wrote about pending federal regulations requiring providers to give patients access to their medical record in a format usable by mobile apps. This, we said, could “decisively disrupt medicine’s clinical and economic power structure.”

Indeed, the regulations provide “a base on which innovation can happen,” declared Elise Sweeney Anthony, executive director of the policy office of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Policy, at one session. 

But a base is only that. While Apple has already unveiled an app allowing people to see their health record on their iPhone, as yet there’s no “transformative business model” propelling hospitals to reach out to patients, said Julia Adler-Milstein, director of the Center for Clinical Informatics and Improvement Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Nor is there any indication from her research that many patients are interested.

“It’s still early days,” she added. 

Similarly, Fitbit and Google announced their intent to combine patient-generated health data with clinical information in the EHR well before Fitbit agreed to Google’s $2.1 billion

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