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Mobile Health Builds Momentum

New sector holds much opportunity

By Peggy Albright

It’s not often that an entirely new information and communications technology sector comes along, but that’s what the emerging field of mobile health represents. This nascent industry, pioneered by technology vendors and mobile operators to serve the vast healthcare market, has attracted early adopters and is building momentum in the US and beyond. For those wanting to get in on the ground floor of a new industry that’s destined to grow and do good things, mobile health presents an enticing and exciting opportunity.

Hot Sectors

The term “mobile health” can have a range of meanings, but as the industry has emerged, its characterization has begun to take shape. In general, the field refers to the use of mobile technologies and services to support clinical and operational functions in the healthcare industry as well as consumer-oriented fitness and wellness applications.

Growing industry acceptance

The clinical and operational segments of mobile health require the medical industry’s acceptance for commercialization. Indeed, regulatory hurdles and the medical industry’s reluctance to change have presented the biggest barriers to adoption.

Fortunately, medical records’ impending digitization and the need for cost-effective healthcare services have convinced stakeholders that mobile solutions can play a role in advancing these larger objectives. A few early adopters from hospital, health-insurance, and physician organizations have added mobile solutions to their practices.

Leading institutions are testing the costs, benefits, and health impacts. As the trials conclude in the next couple of years and the results are assessed, mainstream organizations are expected to begin embracing mobile health in a meaningful and noticeable fashion.

IT specialists and entrepreneurs who seek to develop mobile health expertise should target their efforts to address specific sub-segments. Clinical and operational sub-segments can include:
1) products that physicians can use in a clinic, such as wireless tablets, for entering and accessing patient health records;
2) chronic care or disease management applications, such as remote monitoring products that patients can use to gather blood pressure, heart rate, and various other types of data related to long-term health conditions;
3) acute care applications for physician use, such as solutions that make it possible to view x-rays and other medical images via mobile devices; and
4) treatment plan applications, such as programs for pharmacy customers that can remind patients to take their medicine and monitor compliance.

Innovators wanting to develop new IT and computing solutions in this emerging field should also identify gaps in the current business environment, because those gaps are where the next business opportunities are likely to occur.

Azita Arvani, founder of Arvani Group and a mobile health expert, says that the technology needed to unleash mobile health is currently available. What are needed now, she said, are good business models for mobile health products and solutions that address the following business issues:
1) product support;
2) liability and regulatory concerns;
3) interoperability for hardware and software platforms;
4) privacy and security; and
5) the need to incorporate mobile health solutions into the medical establishment’s daily workflows.

Consumer trends

Applications targeting the consumer fitness and wellness market have created the bulk of the mobile health business to date. These types of applications—which can range from weight-loss programs to blood-sugar measurement tools and diet guides for diabetics—have been easy to introduce because they can be marketed directly to consumers and distributed easily via smartphones. In most cases, a healthcare provider’s participation hasn’t been needed for a consumer to use one of these applications.

Consumer products make up the bulk of the 10,000 mobile medical, fitness, and wellness applications developed for the smartphone and mobile device market. Yet the crowded field—combined with the low, 99-cent price point common to the smartphone market—has made it hard to break through with meaningful revenue-producing products.

Fortunately, new research to better understand the consumer mobile market should help innovators tailor their applications to appeal to customers who are willing to pay for mobile health applications.

According to a study released by PricewaterhouseCoopers in September, there is a market for consumers who are willing to pay a premium for high-value applications. About half of consumers surveyed by PWC said they would buy a mobile health technology that enables them to understand their own key health metrics and share that data with their family, doctors, fitness trainers, and others who are important to them.

Of those surveyed, 20 percent said they would purchase the service to monitor fitness or well-being and 18 percent said they want a product that would enable their doctors to monitor their health conditions. About 40 percent said they would pay for remote monitoring devices and a monthly service fee to send data automatically to their doctors, but they would prefer to pay less than US $10 for the monthly service and less than US $75 for the device.

Regional markets

While the US market is lucrative and highly visible, early implementations will appear in other countries. Countries with national healthcare programs, such as Canada or Great Britain, are considered friendly markets for new mobile health solutions. They are also easier to approach because a single government entity is responsible for the entire system.

Emerging markets represent another near-term and meaningful opportunity for mobile health. In many countries where little healthcare infrastructure exists and large population segments don’t have access to local medical care, mobile health solutions have already shown they can bring care to regions where it previously didn’t exist.

The United Nations Foundation’s mHealth Alliance, formed in 2009 to bring mobile health to remote and resource-poor environments, has become the catalyst for introducing many mobile health initiatives. They range from simple SMS-based platforms for patients to smartphone-based applications for doctors to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.

The alliance is seeking entries for a new competition that will award US $50,000 to a winning mobile health application. Applications are due on 15 December. For information, go to http://www.unfoundation.org/global-issues/technology/mhealth-alliance.html.

Enterprise markets

IT professionals who work in large corporations may not need to look beyond their own companies to find outlets for good mobile health solutions. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the enterprise sector has already found that mobile health programs can help companies improve employee wellness and productivity, decrease absenteeism, and help contain company healthcare costs.

At the CTIA Enterprise and Applications Conference 2010 in San Francisco in October, representatives from two US companies developing mobile health solutions for the healthcare and enterprise sectors revealed that they are also developing mobile health programs for their own employees.

AT&T, which provides health insurance for about 1.2 million employees, retirees, and dependents, has decided that mobile programs will help the company meet its strategic objective to offer quality healthcare at lower costs.

GE, which spends about US $3 billion annually on employee healthcare, has a similar strategy. Among its programs is one to improve diabetic employees’ health and reduce costs to insure them.

Funding mobile health startups

For independent developers, finding funding to pursue a mobile health application can be difficult. According to the investment bank TripleTree, which follows the venture funding market for mobile health, just four mobile health startups received venture funding in the first half of 2010, one less compared to that period of 2009. Developers seeking financial and other support for their innovations would be smart to approach organizations that have a strategic interest in advancing mobile health initiatives.

One notable company that is looking for mobile health innovations is Nokia. The cell phone manufacturer is building mobile health products for AT&T and T-Mobile and it has also identified mobile health as a promising market for applications that it distributes through its Ovi store, which offers applications for handsets from many manufacturers and for most international markets.

Lisa McKnight, senior manager of services and solutions for the Nokia AT&T product group, urges mobile health application developers to respond to its North America “Calling All Innovators” competition, cosponsored by Nokia and AT&T, which offers $10 million in cash and other prizes to winning developers. The deadline for applications is January 28, 2011. For information, go to http://www.callingallinnovators.com/10M/.

Beyond smartphones

One of the misconceptions already prevalent in the emerging mobile health business is the expectation that this market will be built on high-end handsets such as the iPhone or Android devices.

“This is not about the smartphone,” said Clint McClellan, senior director of market development for health and life sciences at Qualcomm.

In the US, about one-third of the consumer base has a smart phone, and in developing countries, the penetration of these handheld computers is even lower. To ensure that an application has the broadest possible market, design it so that it can be used on feature phones.

Another option is to use the phone as a modem to transmit data gathered from a metering device; this approach has proven successful already for numerous products used in both emerging and developing markets. For developers looking to the future, consider ways to use a “smart patch” that can be affixed to a patient’s skin to collect and send health data to a physician or healthcare organization. CW (18 October, 2010)

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