Friday, April 5, 2013

Health goes digital - emerging trends in 2013

Digital health took off in a big way in 2012. Health tech accelerator Rock Health reported that investors poured $1.4 billion into digital health companies last  year, and an overall increase in the number of deals closed, as well as the value of funding. Further, healthcare purchasing tools for customers and health tracking were two of the focus areas for investment.

Technology undeniably has a huge role to play in the area of personal health, and the advent of smartphones has made it even more ubiquitous. You might have noticed the increase in the number of calorie counting or exercise monitoring apps, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In this post, I want to highlight the latest developments and emerging trends in health tech in 2013.

1. Health goes mobile

With an estimated 40,000 health apps available across platforms, mHealth is clearly poised to become huge. Smartphones are always with us, and they usually have constant internet connectivity. This makes them ideal as tracking devices (counting steps climbed or distance walked) and also as input devices (entering the meals consumed in a calorie counter). As the sensors on smartphones become more sophisticated, they can even function as rudimentary recording or measurement devices - we already have apps that use the cell phone camera to measure blood pressure and heart rate. 

It has been estimated that 1/3rd of US smartphone users turn to cell phones to track basic things like diet and exercise. When you look at the older segment (above 35), this figure goes up to 60%. It's an interesting indicator of how the mobile phone is becoming ubiquitous in health.

Hospitals and health care providers are also using the mobile to connect with patients - to provide outpatient care, to share tips and reminders with expectant mothers, to automate reminders and booking for regular appointments and health screenings and to monitor elderly and ailing people who live alone.

2. The internet of things makes health tracking continuous!

Companies like Withings and Fitbit have pioneered wireless scales that record your weight, BMI and body fat percentage and transfer it to a mobile app. 


Health tech start up Asthmapolis wants to help asthma patients by hacking their constant standby - the inhaler. The company has designed a snap-on bluetooth sensor to track how often people use inhalers and sends the data to smartphone apps that provide analytics and tips to users. Most importantly, the data helps to identify patients who are at high risk for getting an attack, and implement measures to bring the asthma under control. In fact, studies have shown that access to realtime data has led to a 50% drop in patients with uncontrolled asthma. It's not only patients who benefit but also health insurers, who buy the software and monitoring solutions from Asthmapolis to cut their own health care bills from patient admissions

And now Swiss scientists have developed a tiny bluetooth capable device that can be inserted easily under the skin using a needle and is equipped to collect constant stats on several markers including blood glucose and cholestrol. This is of huge value to track high-risk patients with chronic conditons.

And of course, let's not forget the huge trend of 'wearable tech' - devices such as the FitBit, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up and Basis Watch - which constantly collect and present information to the user in a way that aids habit change.

3. Education, diagnosis and early detection

For a moment, let's go back to the basics. A recent survey by Pew Internet research showed that 80% of internet users turn to a search engine first when they have a health related query. Access to internet on both mobile and PC, offers a huge opportunity to put accurate information at the users fingertips - information that can be used for prevention, self diagnosis and even early detection. Web MD and iTriage both offer 'symptom checker' apps on desktop and mobile. There is a serious potential for a health search engine that gives access to reliable health information. And there is a real scope for governmental/ institutional health bodies to increase access to people, and to offer netizens the chance to book a health appointment, diagnostics test, or even a telemedicine consultation over phone.

On a more futuristic note, SF based start up Scanadu is developing a device along the lines of the famous 'tricorder' in Star Trek - a gadget that lets you check your temperature, pulse and other vital signs, simply by holding it close to your body. It then sends this information to your smartphone, from where it can be sent to your doctor.

4. Social media as a tool of behaviour change

This is perhaps the most interesting and potent development in health tech. Any device or technology, no matter how advanced, needs to outlive its novelty value. It needs to induce a behaviour or habit change in the long term if it is really going to solve a health issue for the user. And to this end,  it's not enough to create a gadget or an app, we need to figure how to motivate and emotionally engage with people. This is where the social angle can play a big role. Programs that use technology along with some element of human interaction (an expert coach and/or a peer group) are those that show the best results.


San Fransisco startup Omada Health targets people at risk for diabetes to sign up for an online coaching program called ‘Prevent’ that can cut their risk of developing the disease by upto 58%. The 4 month program utilises a proven curriculum developed by the National Institute of Health and adds a digital component.  Participants in Prevent are placed in 12-member groups with a health coach leading each group. They interact only through an online public forum and strive towards common goals. For example, the first goal is a weight loss of 7% - group members do not know how much the others weigh, but they can track each others' progress towards the goal. The peer group functions both as a support mechanism and a motivator to compete/ showcase oneself favorably. It contributes hugely to members achieving their goals.



Sources : GigaOmTechiTechCrunchFastCompanyVentureBeat