Fasten your seatbelts, the future is arriving! The biggest surprise in mobile health for 2013 will be how technologies and innovations that have been lingering on the far horizon of “someday” begin moving rapidly into everyday reality. These five anywhere health breakthroughs have been building momentum over the last several years and are now poised to burst into mainstream awareness and adoption in 2013.
1. The Health Tricorder Hits Warp Speed
Leading the 2013 mHealth transformation will be the first working prototypes and demonstrations of the handheld “health tricorder”. First popularized on Star Trek several decades ago, these dedicated smartphone-like devices are beginning to offer a truly astonishing array of health tracking and diagnostic capabilities, allowing individuals to scan for a wide range of disease conditions. A $10 million dollar Qualcomm X-prize competition is also helping to catalyze attention and practical interest in bringing this technology to market. The specific details for winning the Tricorder X-Prize include successfully diagnosing a set of 15 distinct diseases in a group of 15-30 people over a three day period. This diagnosis must be performed in the hands of a consumer, independently of a healthcare worker or facility. (http://tiny.cc/tricorderxprize )
Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, reports they have received more than 150 entrants from 26 different countries. An early contender in the Tricorder X-Prize competition is Scanadu – whose promotional video borders on science fiction. (http://tiny.cc/scanadu) The fictional aspect falls away though, when you look at Scanadu’s team of super-smart engineers, healthcare specialists, and startup veterans who are intent on winning the prize by “taking your smartphone to medical school.”
2. Everyday Tracking of Health Data
The second trend that will hit the tipping point in 2013 revolves around self-tracking. What was once the province of a small group of West coast enthusiasts gathering under the banner of the “Quantified Self Movement”, tracking everyday health and nutrition activities is fast becoming a routine component of diet and exercise regimes. Armed with devices such as the FitBit, Basis Watch, Nike Plus and the Withings Scale, self-trackers can effortlessly gather a remarkable range and specificity of health-related information, and then access that information through sophisticated software dashboards. These personalized dashboards track progress, display trends, and offer tips and suggestions tailored to each specific user. A number of studies have proven the remarkable power that this feedback can provide, even in the absence of specific exercise programs. In other words, simply by monitoring their weight and diet more closely, self-trackers have seen significant weight loss and health improvements! Furthermore, according to recent research by the Pew Foundation, 34 % of self-trackers said their data collection had affected a health decision; 40 % said they asked their doctors new questions or sought second opinions as a result of self-tracking; and 46 % said self-tracking changed their overall approach to health. ( http://tiny.cc/selftracking
3. $50 Smartphones Change Healthcare in Africa
Wikipedia is the sixth most popular site on the planet, so Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales knows a thing or two about digital trends. That’s why his recent comments about the proliferation of $50 smartphones across Africa are so telling – even Jimmy Wales is blown away by the speed at which smartphones are taking off in Africa. “What I always thought about mobile in Africa…is this [smartphone adoption] is coming in the future — in the future someday,” said Wales. “Well the someday’s happening faster than I ever realised.” For Wikipedia, this means growing numbers of Africans will be able to tap in to the vast wealth of knowledge stored at Wikipedia. As Wales considers the marketplace, he sees nothing but possibility: “Things that are very hard for us to all imagine are going to happen much faster than we realize. People are going to be coming online for the first time. There’s this vibrant community of young app developers growing in Kenya and Nigeria. It’s mind-boggling to think what the possibilities are — and I’m super excited about it.”
Healthcare providers and marketers should also be excited as a potential market of more than a billion people suddenly materializes online. Unified by common smartphone operating systems, developers and health educators can now reach literally tens of millions of Africans with critical and timely health information and services.
One example of how mobile technology is creating significant change in Africa is a program called SMS for Life – a joint partnership led by Novartis, in conjunction with IBM and Vodafone. Focused on using phones to track the supply of anti-malarial medications, the program has made significant impact across Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, and Cameroon in terms of making sure that remote health clinics have the necessary malarial treatments on hand. Donald Marchand, a professor at IMD in Switzerland, provided strategic guidance to the project and notes that “malaria kills around a million people every year – mostly young children in Africa – but almost all of these deaths are preventable. The problem is that supply chain difficulties within many African countries make it hard to get the drugs to the right place at the right time. The SMS for Life project saw a group of people from a number of different companies work together to solve this problem using SMS technology.” http://tiny.cc/smsforlife
Obviously there are political and economic challenges to overcome in Africa, but the rapid penetration of mobile services is going to spark economies across the continent, leading to many more breakthrough projects like SMS For Life. The rising tide of income and upward mobility will bring with it an incredible demand for healthcare services. In fact, these two trends of smartphone penetration and the proliferation of mHealth applications are so powerful that African health systems are now poised to leapfrog from being aid recipients to becoming the world’s top mHealth providers and experts. As inconceivable as it may now seem, health systems in the developed world will soon be turning to their African colleagues for urgent answers regarding mHealth, remote diagnostics, and cost containment.
4. Anywear Monitoring Drives Anywhere Health
The digital-analog interface continues to blur as we integrate ever more intimately with our digital devices. While Google glasses and embedded phones have grabbed most of the recent headlines, there has been a dramatic revolution brewing in the seemingly mundane area of textile sciences. As digital nano-engineering moves out of the lab and into our everyday lives though, nowhere will the change be more noticeable than in the clothes we wear. We’ve already seen some of these super stain resistant, wrinkle resistant, cold resistant materials come to market with seemingly miraculous properties. However, the next round of innovation is going to bring entire suites of digital sensors woven into our clothing – providing an incredible breadth of exercise and health related applications.
Innovative start-ups such as mc10 in Boston are leading this “anywear health” transformation. Ben Schlatka, VP of Business Development at mc10 describes the impact of this new approach – “for product designers, electronics are usually a rigid box and something you have to work around. Now we can interface them with soft tissue, either directly to the skin or in materials that come in contact with the ski, so electronics can stretch and move with the body.” In partnership with Reebok, some of the initial applications from mc10 will involve performance sports gear, such as a special mesh for ice-hockey helmets. This mesh will capture important impact data while being virtually seamless to wear. The technology is housed inside a thin, breathable mesh skullcap that fits comfortably under any helmet. If players wearing the mesh are hit with a puck, medical personal can quickly assess on the spot the degree of overall impact, and make critical decisions about whether or not the player may have suffered a concussion. “Conformal biometric sensors are changing the game for both the elite and the student athlete,” said David Icke, CEO of MC10. “MC10’s sports products give athletes the enhanced sensing they need to optimize peak performance, while safely preserving the benefits and spirit of game play.” [http://tiny.cc/anywear]
5. A Rigorous Evaluation of mHealth
Metrics and statistics are rarely sexy, but even so – 2013 is going to be a brilliant time for testing the validity of various mHealth services and apps. At the 2012 mHealth Summit, there was a spirited discussion of whether or not mHealth apps should be held to the “gold standard” of random controlled trials (RCTs). In other words – without rigorous (and time consuming) testing, how do we know for sure which of the myriad of mHealth solutions on the marketplace actually deliver a measurable health outcome? The challenge however, is that in a fast-moving field like mHealth by the time RCTs can be completed, the technology itself may be outdated. For example, just this year, an RCT confirmed that a hypertension app developed for the Palm Pilot back in 2007 does in fact deliver medically favorable outcomes! This finding matches the initial, but less rigorous research that was conducted when the app was first launched.
Examining the seeming disconnect between “Silicon Valley time” and “Medical Research time” Chris Bergstrom, Chief Strategy and Development Officer at WellDoc, noted that despite the delays that come with conducing RCTs, “No doctor’s going to prescribe a product if they don’t believe it’s an effective product that will move the needle. I don’t really see that changing. This has been how healthcare has operated for decades and I think it will be for the next few years.”
The bottom line: for mHealth developers who want to associate a specific medical outcome with their service or app, RCTs will likely continue to be required to gain acceptance among HCPs. For other companies looking to sell directly to consumers in the self-help category, such rigorous testing will likely be too time consuming as they race to gain awareness and market share. ( http://tiny.cc/rcts_for_mhealth )
Whether we’re ready or not, the mHealth landscape is going to undergo some dramatic changes and collisions in 2013 that will feel like science fiction – smart phones from Star Trek that know more than our doctor, clothing that tracks critical health data, devices that can tweet our every heartbeat, and Africa becoming a world leader in mHealth. What is truly exciting though is that these trends are just the tip of the iceberg – as 2013 will see new breakthroughs that we can’t even imagine. So, fasten your seat belts, put on your mesh sensors, and get ready for a wild and healthy ride!