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Digital Meets Health

December 22, 2011

I posted the following guest blog on the Popper and Company website on December 14, 2011:

Digital Meets Health

Last week I attended the 3rd annual mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), this multi-track conference attracted some 3,600 attendees and included representatives from across the health innovation spectrum, including industry, investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, standards, NGOs, mobile operators, wireless technology producers, healthcare systems, insurers, pharma, regulators, researchers, and a multitude of others with an interest in the burgeoning space of ‘mHealth.’

While the lexicon for mHealth (an amalgam of “mobile” and “health”) is diverse and overlapping, a natural theme emerges if we look at the genesis of the term. The PC and ever-smaller, more powerful computer microprocessors spawned the digital revolution. Recently, we’ve seen the mobile revolution taking hold, wherein digital tools and wireless technologies have converged to allow us to be connected consumers, patients, and professionals. Now we are seeing a digital health revolution, wherein mobile, and the connectivity it provides for us, is enabling a new paradigm for health. Moreover, this phenomenon is spreading throughout the entire life sciences and health care ecosystem, including all strategics. To characterize all of this as simply being a combination of mobile and health is not only ambiguous (the term “mobile” has often been used interchangeably to mean a cell phone or mobility), but is somewhat disingenuous to the fundamentals that are driving this paradigm shift. Of course, mHealth is a very catchy and accessible term – and proponents have steadily broadened its meaning – so it’s often easier to make a concession in many modes of communication rather than fight a good-natured but losing battle!

In terms of how the overall ecosystem and, in particular, businesses are leveraging digital, wireless, and mobile, there are varying schools of thought and analyses – not surprisingly, the prism one views it through shapes the assessment.

For some analysts, like John Moore at Chilmark Research, the feeling is that “mHealth” is stuck in neutral. But this perspective is often colored by the framework of mHealth being mostly about health apps and mobile tools in healthcare settings and in population health management, and about smartphone health apps for consumers. The healthcare status quo is precisely what many are trying to disrupt, hence it will be those who can succeed at the peripheries, in novel ways, which may effect changes in the current business and reimbursement models. Necessarily, these innovations are going to see sporadic success, at least initially. Dr. Joe Kvedar, Director of the Center for Connected Health in Boston, echoes this same sentiment in his recent blog post “Is disruption of mainstream healthcare the answer to our crisis?”.

In an effort to track some of the better known startups making progress, healthcare startup accelerator Rock Health has compiled an extensive list of Digital Health Startups which, not surprisingly, are not household names. In total numbers these are small, but they represent the first wave of the digital health revolution coming our way.

As a bit of confirmation from an investment perspective, Dr. Mohit Kaushal, co-manager at the $100M West Health Investment Fund, indicated that one payer was planning to acquire 30 companies (MobiHealthNews). Counter-balancing this, yet another investor, Lisa Suennen, a respected commentator on the health innovation business, takes the view that investments are mostly stalled.

If we change our perspective once more, and look at the world while focusing on wireless technologies converging with health and healthcare, one segment of that market – remote patient monitoring – has seen revenues double in the past four years and this is expected to double again in the next four, according to research firm Kalorama (news). Moreover, wireless technology companies like Qualcomm, which is known for its wireless technology, particularly cellular phone chipsets, announced a new wholly owned subsidiary, Qualcomm Life, at the Summit. The new entity has launched an enabling wireless health and medical device platform hub device plus cloud data management platform called “2net,” which many hope will help catalyze the efforts of the 40-plus current partners and many more companies hoping to more-efficiently deliver wireless health solutions. Moreover, Qualcomm Ventures has established a $100M investment fund, which includes one particularly exciting company, AliveCor, whose primary product is the iPhone ECG, invented by Dr. Dave Albert.

From a clinical research perspective, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has an mHealth Intra-Institute Interest Group, which tracks some 200+ research projects utilizing mHealth and wireless technologies. These tools are making monitoring and data gathering in clinical trials more efficient and powerful. Pharmaceutical companies and Clinical Research Organizations (CROs), like Quintiles, are also leveraging wireless tools in trials.

In summary, digital technology is everywhere and mobile connectivity – enabled by wireless – is one of the driving trends in health, healthcare, as well as the broader consumer markets. No less than CES, the annual consumer electronics show that highlights trends in all things digital that consumers love, will hold its second annual Digital Health Summit this year in Las Vegas (co-located with the main CES conference).

As Dr. Eric Topol, one of the keynote presenters at the mHealth Summit puts it: after having digitized everything else in our world, we are now digitizing man. (I highly recommend Dr. Topol’s 2009 TEDMED talk.) Not too long ago that would have been a very scary proposition (e.g., visions of robots taking over the world!), but the luddites are present in limited numbers these days. Quite simply, the imperatives for change – unsustainable healthcare costs, reduced access, an aging baby-boomer population, and marginal outcomes due to our “sick care” system – are being met head on by the new digital health technologies and concomitant emerging new business models. Ultimately, as digital meets health, resistance is futile. And that’s a good thing.

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