Why mHealth Will Go Mainstram in 2012

By James Monaghan, OpenMarket for mHealth News

The start of a new calendar year often ushers in a raft of bold predictions from industry experts and pundits alike. Depending on what you read, 2012 could be the year we ditch plastic en masse and start waving our smartphones to pay for groceries or, perhaps even less likely, we sound the death knell for SMS by migrating to a proprietary OTT messaging system. Some predictions are nakedly over-optimistic, while others sound eerily familiar because the technology’s ascendance has been heralded many years in a row.

At first glance, healthcare, with its labyrinthine regulations, antiquated reimbursement models and reticence to yield to mainstream IT practices, seems like a highly unlikely industry to “go mobile” this year and experience the surge of innovation and adoption associated with the payments, gaming and communications sectors. However, a perfect storm of factors is coming together to ensure that mHealth explodes into mainstream consciousness by the end of 2012.

Follow the money

Like any massive industry, U.S. healthcare is rife with inefficiencies, and since spending on health and medicine in this country accounts for 16 percent of the GDP, both incumbents and entrepreneurs alike understand that a small incremental efficiency in this market could yield tremendous opportunity.

  • Anyone who has been to a doctor’s office has experienced long waits due to sub-optimal scheduling, filling out paperwork with details already shared on a past visit, or presenting multiple credentials (ID, insurance information, payment information) to receive care. But it doesn’t have to be this way – there are many ways mobile technology can make this process more efficient and cost effective.
  • With integrated GPS and adoption of open APIs, patients can find nearby practitioners with open appointment slots – minimizing wait times and unbillable practice hours – just as diners search for last-minute restaurant options.
  • Low-cost, self-service platforms for SMS alerts will soon replace manual phone calls and handwritten notes for appointment reminders and prescription refill notifications, ensuring that billable services and products are used and patients receive their scheduled care.
  • Cloud-based electronic medical record (EMR) platforms, backed by sizeable government incentives for adoption, will render paper-based filing completely obsolete and streamline care with accurate, detailed and portable information.
  • NFC and emerging mobile wallet technologies will go beyond just payment information and act as unified, secure credentials for accessing insurance information and personal health records, completing forms and paying for services with one easy tap.

Wide adoption of these examples in the hospitality and finance industries proves that the technology is ready, and it presents an opportunity to save healthcare providers the cost of missed appointments and drive timely prescription refills. The chance to take a piece of that revenue is attracting both traditional investors with a track record in health technology, such as Qualcomm Ventures, and upstart incubators like RockHealth looking to help entrepreneurs with a traditional web background break into healthcare. With revenue models and venture capital in place, we can expect a slew of exciting announcements and product launches this year.

Let the gamification begin

The revenue opportunity doesn’t stop at the patient and provider end of the spectrum either. Insurance companies and other “payers” have large incentives to foster better communication with their members and provide greater access to health information, because healthier people use fewer healthcare services and cost less to insure. Recently, hospital networks, insurers and charitable foundations have tested various informational alerts and wellness programs – from finding the nearest HIV testing center to getting weekly pregnancy tips via SMS – and many have been a big hit with consumers.

Today, addictive gaming and social reinforcement models – the “game mechanics” pioneered by Zynga and Foursquare – are helping people adopt healthier behavior. Setting goals, tracking progress bars, earning badges for achieving milestones, challenging your friends and sharing your stats on Twitter or Facebook – all of these elements can make healthy actions such as picking salad over french fries, walking to work, losing a few pounds or even getting a prostate exam almost addictive.

For a long time, the healthcare industry assumed that providing enough facts or incentives was the only way to encourage healthier choices. Now many believe that the secret lies in basic psychology and reinforcing positive behaviors. Several applications applying this principle have debuted in recent years; smartphone food tracker The Eatery and social exercise stream Dailymile are two popular examples. Venerable favorites like Nike Plus and even Wii Fit now incorporate many of these features, but never have the mechanics been so well understood (thanks, Farmville), the technology available to so many consumers or the tide of entrepreneurs wanting to do something “good” been so strong. Research2guidance estimates that the size of the mHealth app market will nearly double in 2012 to $1.3 billion, up from $718 million in 2011.

Know thyself

A huge challenge in healthcare is the perception that care only happens when a patient is in front of a doctor. In fact, daily decisions often have the greatest effect. Of course, all the fancy visualizations and game mechanics in the world can’t operate in isolation, no matter how incented a consumer is to use them or stakeholders in their wellbeing are to fund them. Data drives everything. In order to change something, you must be able to measure it and much more frequently than at an annual physical exam.

Fortunately, there has been a huge proliferation of devices aimed to provide crucial data points for those on the path to the “quantified self.” Recent advances have made them small enough to be mobile, cheap enough for consumers to buy and, in many cases, connected to wireless networks for ready aggregation and sharing of data. Vibration and GPS-driven pedometers, electromagnetic and optical heart rate monitors, blood pressure cuffs, glucose meters, scales and body composition analyzers and sleep trackers – all of these sensors are either available for home use or packaged in wearable wristbands or smartphone accessories.

Mobihealth predicts that the U.S. market for wireless home-based healthcare applications and services will become a $4.4 billion industry in 2013. To say there is demand for these devices would be a massive understatement. The first batch of Nike’s FuelBand, a new goal-based activity tracking device, reportedly sold out online in just four minutes.

Pulling it all together

All of these trends – maturing technology, willing consumers and available funding – are promising, but things get really exciting when data is freed from proprietary, vertically integrated silos and made portable. Consumers should be able to selectively share their exercise data with their health team. Data from a weight tracking application is most meaningful when displayed alongside activity and caloric intake data. A host of mash-ups bringing together not just disparate sources of one’s own health data, but local and regional trends, social graphs and demographic statistics are possible if this information is set free.

This presents both a technical and marketing challenge. Sensors need reliable carrier connectivity for M2M messaging to upload their measurements. Data exchange formats and centralized hubs are necessary for the interconnection of these applications. Finally, we must establish consumer trust around identity management, privacy and security of data. Startups and enterprises alike are innovating in this area, with Runmeter’s Health Graph API and the AT&T mHealth Platform representing two prominent examples of cloud solutions tackling these complexities.

Even simple components – delivering an alert to remind someone to take their medication, for example – require integration with multiple wireless carriers and OEM platforms to reliably reach every user, but new platforms exist to tackle this challenge. With these strategies and other pieces in place, the pace of innovation for mHealth is sure to accelerate this year.