Digital health: what’s the business model?

image via svtechtalk.com

Connecting patients with each other, with clinicians and other providers, with insurers, and with healthcare companies via mobile apps on tablets and smartphones and on the web seems like a great idea. The unanswered question is can you make money doing it?

Articles have been written about how the Internet has enabled patients with chronic diseases and their families to connect with others with the same condition. The patients share stories about symptoms, treatment successes and failures, and try to support each other in what can be emotionally draining circumstances. That ability to connect with a vast community all over the country, perhaps even the world, was virtually impossible before the advent of the World Wide Web.

Other companies are trying to connect healthcare providers with their patients. Some are offering to connect patients with providers for online visits for a fee, effectively commoditizing the doctor-patient relationship.

Google famously shut its attempt at a personal health record site, Google Health, last year. Google Health required a lot of effort to use as it didn’t automatically connect with consumers’ Electronic Medical Records. That shortcoming left a small market of people who were OK with manually entering all of their health data. And that wasn’t a big enough user base for Google.

Healthcare companies, especially those with a B2C business model, are desperate to maintain relationships with consumers.

Providing apps and cloud storage can be costly. It’s not clear who will pay for the digital services.

Doctors and other providers have been incentivized into adopting EMR technology. It’s unlikely that they will invest in additional information technology for their patients.

It seems that consumers and patients love the free stuff. A few may be willing to pay for some services but many have grown to expect that someone else will foot the bill. And most non-healthcare smartphone and tablet apps are either free or at most a few dollars. That sets a low ceiling for any new health-related apps. It’s a tough way to grow a sizable healthcare or medical device company.

People have grown accustomed to paying almost nothing for their healthcare. Sure, there are co-pays and deductibles that have increased significantly in recent years but those are a small fraction of the cost of care. It will be a challenge to change this expectation for health-related apps and services.

In-app ads are probably not the way to go. If the ads are for healthcare-related items like prescription drugs, the patients will lose trust in the service. If the ads are specifically targeted to the patient’s medical condition, the service will be accused of spying on the patient.

Perhaps healthcare companies will regard the cost of developing and providing apps as a marketing expense.

It’s an interesting dilemma. Free apps and services will draw large numbers of users. But monetizing the app via ads turns off many people. Charging for the services drastically reduces the potential market. Absorbing the expense internally places the app/service on the list of things to be cut when the company’s overall business stagnates or declines.

Takeaways: There is enormous interest in apps and services for mobile health. If you are developing products or services in this space, be sure you know how you are going to make money. It’s not a market if you can’t monetize it.

The traditional medical device business model doesn’t seem to apply here. If you procure funding, develop a product, then show economic or health benefits, who do you sell to?

Perhaps partnering with noncompeting companies interested in the same population is a creative way around the problem. If you can deliver large numbers of consumers/patients via a sponsored app to a partner like a big pharmaceutical company, you may be able to avoid some of the pitfalls and objections.

It’s prudent to put a lot of effort now into developing a viable business model. After all, when you start pitching to investors, one of the first questions asked will be, “how do you plan to make money?”

Read more:

Will Any Health App Ever Really Succeed? | MIT Technology Review

Patients share tips online for managing diseases | SFGate.

Improving Patient Engagement Equal Parts Technology, Empathy | Computerworld

Patients Eager To Access Data Including Medical Imaging Through Online Portals (infographic) | MDDI Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry News Products and Suppliers.