Call it mobile health, digital health, eHealth, or”Consumer Health Technology” as Forbes does. By any name the emerging market sector is expanding rapidly and attracting lots of attention, entrepreneurs, and investors.
As I’ve previously written, the time for mobile health has arrived. We carry in our pockets mobile devices with more computing power than the Apollo 11 astronauts had when they landed on the moon. The devices themselves are bristling with sensors and wireless radios. Typical smartphones have temperature sensors, accelerometers, gyros, GPS sensors, ambient light sensors, microphones, touch sensors, and high resolution still and video cameras. They can communicate via Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi, and a number of cellular communications protocols. On-board storage can hold thousands of books and dozens of movies. Connected cloud storage provides effectively infinite storage capacity.
Innovative engineers are responsible for an ongoing explosion of single and multi-purpose external, wearable sensors that communicate wirelessly with smartphones. Smartphone manufacturers are increasingly integrating fitness tracking capabilities into their devices. For example, Apple’s latest iPhone included the M7 chip that can track user activities while minimally affecting battery life.
Application developers are creating sophisticated fitness and health tracking software using the aforementioned technologies. Applications are increasingly passive rather than active, meaning the user does not need to enter data. The apps and sensors detect activities and are able to collect activity data in the background. Others are working to connect the consumer devices and sensors with electronic medical and health records “in the cloud” for a variety of purposes.
There are two main segments in mobile health, regulated and unregulated applications. In the near term, there is tremendous growth and potential in the unregulated space because it’s a quick way to get to market. The consumer markets are very large but price-sensitive.
Of course, your mobile health startup will not be alone when you get there. Big players are either already in the market or they are entering rapidly. Nike, Weight Watchers, Aetna, Garmin, Apple, Samsung, and others are already battling to be the mobile health brand of choice. There are new entrants as well. Jawbone, BodyMedia, FitLinxx, and Fitbit are relatively new companies with trendy, stylish wearable devices.
Huffington Post reported that Berg Insight said 8.3 million wearables were sold last year, up from only 3.1 million in 2011. By 2017, that number is set to reach 64 million. mobihealthnews projects 13 million fitness-related wearables will be purchased just for corporate wellness plans by 2018.
For FDA-regulated devices and applications, the initial market is smaller but the potential is just as great. Regulatory clearances and approvals provide some barriers to entry but will ultimately serve to give early market entrants a head start and not much more. These devices promise to do much more than fitness tracking. They have the potential to monitor chronic diseases and overall health, to provide alerts for significant health-related events, to collect data for clinician use, and to provide specific health-related guidance using user-specific data.
In addition to FDA scrutiny, another significant issue is compliance with HIPAA laws regarding patient privacy. With what amounts to 24×7 data collection and connectivity, there will be enormous amounts of user-specific data in devices and in cloud databases. Companies will have to address data security preemptively or risk losing user trust.
I believe the benefits to the user and to the healthcare system far outweigh the risks and costs associated with these devices and applications.
For healthy individuals, mobile health can provide real time feedback into activities, fitness levels, sleep patterns, even diet information like nutrient balance and calorie consumption.
For aging individuals or those with chronic diseases, mobile health can monitor vital signs, check disease-specific conditions, provide reminders to take medications or perform physical therapy exercises, and send updates and alerts to family members and physicians.
For physicians, mobile health can provide another way to communicate with patients and can also check compliance with recommendations and prescriptions.
For the healthcare system, mobile health can contribute to healthcare Big Data, making it easier for researchers, drug and device companies, and policy makers to track, measure, and assess the health and activities of large populations.
Takeaways: Mobile health is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for entrepreneurs. If you have an idea, now is the time to commercialize it. If you are a software developer, find hardware partners. Likewise, if you have developed a sensor, team up with app developers to make a complete package. If you have an unformed idea, try to shape it around mobile health. Investors have taken notice. Rock Health is soliciting applications for funding at a variety of levels.