By Angelica Recierdo, inside columnist

Imagine an app or device that told you how many quality hours you slept last night, or your anxiety level before an exam. Imagine it told you how many pounds you had to lose to reach your goal weight, or how bad your posture was. Would you listen to it?

Now, imagine an app or device that knew all of this data, but instead of spewing random numbers and percentages, it provided it to you in a contextual way. “Get the apple at Rebecca’s instead of that bag of chips and you’ll be x amount away from your goal.” You would get options instead of hard science. “Take the long way home to burn x amount. The weather is nice anyway.”

The deluge of data without context is the trouble with digital health innovations today. Clinicians are bombarded by the “worried well” – young, mostly healthy and upperclass patients – who bring in data to their office visits and neither they, nor their providers, know what to do with it. Unless you have a serious cardiac condition that requires monitoring, constantly seeing your heartbeat is just a cool feature on a smartwatch and doesn’t necessarily make you healthier.

Another issue the health care innovators of today need to tackle is how to get these apps into the hands of the chronically ill – people with heart disease, diabetes, etc. – who could really benefit from a more interactive personal care plan.

Unfortunately, these people tend to be of a lower socioeconomic class, are older or may not even speak English, making it hard to access devices. The person who could help the most with this is not a clinician or an app developer – they are a user-experience designer.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and culture change is the call to action for any change to happen in the health care industry. The stethoscope has been used for over a century; this is either a perfect product or a result of a slow-moving system. Health care is not like other industries. There are no quick-fire trends when you are in the business of saving lives. Clinicians are not always hip – they have decades of training backed by evidence-based research, and the politics of an academic-institution hospital is enough frustration to keep even the wide-eyed and optimistic at bay.

On a positive note, innovation is happening right here in cities like Boston,  San Francisco and Cleveland. The most successful solutions come with a personal stake, like trying to monitor a family member for seizures after their brain injury or solving a “pain point” in one’s own clinical practice. These are not one-person endeavors. Interdisciplinary teams consisting of clinicians, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs move an idea through all the stages until it is ready to be commercialized and utilized in real-time patient care.

More than for money or recognition, innovation in health care should be patient-centric and fueled by empathy. As more investors look to health care ventures, it is important to remember being sick is the most vulnerable time in a person’s life, and a sleek and hip app or device could mean nothing to them.

At a recent conference, I recall a company presenting virtual reality goggles for patients to wear as guided imagery in pain relief. A teenager with lupus was able to use them and undergo a painful procedure better than without. However, an older woman with end-stage lung cancer rejected the offer to use “the toy” because she wanted to be with her family during her last days. Context is key, and to make the best products possible, you have to know your audience. Some of the inventors with products out on the market have no idea how a sick person lives day to day.

It doesn’t take much to find the next idea from listening to some stories from others.

The 20-something-year-old with Crohn’s Disease wishes her colostomy bag was made out of a thinner material so she could wear a dress to her birthday party. The grandmother wishes her smartwatch had a blood sugar feature so she could time her meals more appropriately. Algorithms can fail and gadgets can remain in their boxes untouched, but when creativity meets kindness, that’s the moneymaker in health care.
– Angelica Recierdo can be reached at Inside@HuntNewsNU.com.