Mobilized Health is coming to an iPhone near you. Is this the year of mHealth?

All sources indicate that Apple’s next frontier is the Health sector.

Tech prognosticators rely on endless public data, corporate espionage and outright rumormongering to predict Apple’s next innovations. Given that the impact of even a simple release of stomach gas from Tim Cook’s lips can wreak havoc on the stock market, its become an industry to guess what the Wizards of Cupertino are going to offer up next. It seems almost daily that prolific bloggers, tech tastemakers, financial sites, news organizations and mac addicts serve up daily doses of insight on Apple’s plans for domination. Because Apple’s new offerings impact so many different groups of people, its not surprising to find this level of obsessive focus. Despite Android’s vastly larger user base, and Samsung’s seemingly Big Brother-like presence over the last few years, Apple is still looked at as the driver of the mobilized marketplace. Consumers tend to adopt (or at least try) Apple’s innovations, and Apple’s connected ecosystem offers integration on all fronts: retail, home, workplace. A number of recent moves by Apple make it clear they are making a huge investment in health-related products and features in its next round of devices and software.

For many readers, this is old news. But for the average Apple /iOS/iPhone consumer, the details and implications of this will be far-reaching and can potentially coalesce a score of past efforts and techs that have been hammering on the mobile health door for the last 10 years. If adopted, Apple’s health, wellness and fitness innovations could open up a massive, long hoped for opportunity for consumers, doctors, health professionals, hospitals, insurance companies and the general “wellness” industry. This is no shock. Health Care on the whole represents a staggering 1.6 Trillion dollar industry. Despite their stated and likely genuine altruistic intentions, its not surprising that Apple wants to get a slice of that pie. These ambitions are clearly evident by a number of recent developments:

  • One recent move uncovered by Apple Insider, is an Apple Patent filing entitled “Wrist Pedometer Step Detection”.  This patent filing details a program where sensors placed inside of a fitness-tracking device (likely a watch or band – more on that later) would interpret motion and accurately record and represent the users activity. Device patents and info-leaks speak of Apple’s imminent “iWatch” (or whatever they plan to call it), which points to usage for medical, health and fitness related integrations (not to mention the usual fawning and drooling that comes with the prospect of Apple building ANY new gadget). Pundits report a planned wireless tether between the iPhone and the iWatch that will allow a host of intriguing possibilities for tracking, data gathering and interpretation.
  • Recently, Apple showed its hand by revealing Healthbook, a new app that will be part of the standard OS apps in the new operating system, OS 8, which will be a dedicated Health application. The details of this new app show an incredible level of sophistication and scope – allowing users to measure not only weight loss, sleep and fitness tracking, but blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, respiratory and oxygen saturation. Apple is clearly looking to provide consumers with a virtual/mobilized health center – and the implications of this are unlimited from a physician/patient data sharing and hospital visit perspective – not to mention health insurance data.
  • Another more auspicious development, the story broken by ManagagedMarketAccess, was a meeting in December by a group of Senior Apple executives and the United States Food and Drug Administration, apparently to discuss the development of mobile medical applications.  At the meeting from Apple’s side were top software development executives, operational executives and a member from their Government Affairs group. The F.D.A. folks included members from their Center for Devices and Radiological Health, and Bakul Patel, who authored F.D.A.’s mobile medical app guidance. Clearly, this meeting is indicative of serious developments inside Apple to work out the regulatory minefield that will no doubt have to be navigated as these plans come to fruition. That meeting indicates some challenges that Apple is already experiencing as they work out the deployment details of their mHealth ambitions. They are clearly covering their bases on the hardware, software and regulatory fronts.

mHealth is already a crowded space. According the BI Intelligence, there are already roughly 100,000 health applications available in major app stores, and the top 10 mobile health applications generate up to 4 million free and 300,000 paid daily downloads. These are pretty significant numbers. The lion’s share of these apps is not used very much (downloads are not indicative of long term adoption), have limited functionality, are highly specialized for the management of specific health conditions, or are fitness /wellness related apps (these are the most popular). Forty-two percent of apps rely on a paid business model, according to an in-depth study by research2guidance. Only 15% of apps target health care professionals, and the balance are aimed at consumers.

A terrific 2013 report by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics reported some solid info on the use of health apps in the iTunes store.  Every single app categorized as “Health and Wellness” or “Medical” was reviewed. The report itself is over 50 pages long and offers one of the more comprehensive reviews of the mobile health app space.

Here are some highlights:

  • Of the 43,000+ apps evaluated, only 23,682 were designated as having a legitimate health function
  • The Apps were further categorized by 7 capabilities:
  • Inform (10,840 apps)
  • Instruct (5,823 apps)
  • Record/Capture data (5,095 apps)
  • Display User entered data
  • Guide
  • Remind/Alert (1,357 apps)
  • Communicate
  • None of the 7 capabilities (1,622 apps)
  • 5 apps accounted for 15% of all downloads
  • 16,275 were called out as “patient facing”
  • 7,407 were deemed “provider facing”
  • Smartphone use for health apps is lowest (18%) in the 65+ demographic

The mHealth marketplace “seems” crowded- but still only has traction with a few niche consumer groups: Fitness enthusiasts who run, exercise or ride bikes as a main part of their lifestyle, Wellness-types who care a great deal about their food, calorie, sugar intake, weight loss consumers who use apps to track their progress, diet, calorie burning and weigh goals and a segment of patients who have adopted mobile health apps to support their ongoing disease management regimen – like Diabetes sufferers or Heart patients.  The average everyday consumer still does not show a strong desire for mHealth offerings – and until mainstream adoption occurs they likely wont participate or maintain a long-term usage of these tools.  Apps of this type require a great deal more than just a cool interface and gimmicky gadget pairing. Apps of this type are high-engagement apps, which demand commitment, dedication and time on the part of the consumer in order to gain optimal value.  Apple understands this. And it looks like its development group is going to try to bake in some of the tracking and measurement features so that they work in stealth mode, in the background, like dormant record keepers –and provide users with valuable insights and data that the average, busy consumer would not likely take the time to input.

Which is really what is so daunting:  The hope is that when Apple releases new features and software – pre-baked into their OS and accompanied by their sexy, shiny new line of gadgets and simple-to-use interfaces – consumers will adopt them, and push competitors out of the market.  The potential good news will be in the increased adoption of Health related behaviors by the consumer.  Or so Apple hopes. But lets be honest: Apple is not always successful at capturing adoption for their innovations: Apple’s Map platform was a mitigated disaster (and still is – it tried to send me to Cleveland from the NJ turnpike last week); Passbook is not revolutionizing the ticket industry (I use it – but still don’t really see the value) and Apple’s native apps like Calendar and even Safari have been trumped by better versions from third party developers. However, iMessage is now default (I hate when someone’s’ texts turn green), iTunes platform integration is pretty seamless, Siri is not perfect, but I use it daily as a dictation tool and scheduling program, and the iPhone is the most used camera on the market. Overall, iPhone users statistically do more with their phones than Android users do. Apple simply makes it easier for users to get into their offerings, use them and stay there.

So the question remains:  Will these factors result in a successful mHealth ecosystem? Will consumers adopt Apple’s mHealth innovations and devices?  Will Apple’s attempts to gain regulatory and industry acceptance drive the mobile health industry? We should have a good sense of things by Q1 of 2015. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.

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