mHealth: Hope or hype? What should Pharma expect?

What is mHealth? It’s a group of technology offerings that include wearables, apps, and medical devices that connect to your phone or any mobile or wireless device that enhances personal health.

I’m sure most of you reading this have had some experience with wearables. Perhaps you use them to tell you how much distance you cover each day (who came up with the “10,000 steps” thing, anyway?) or how well you sleep at night. Unfortunately, like many personal health devices, including that stair stepper you have had in your garage for a decade, their use rapidly diminishes after about the sixth week of use.

Innovation in wearables is not really so “innovative.” I had a Polar watch and heart rate strap in 1991 (the first version launched in 1987) that wasn’t all that different than what we have now. No, it didn’t tell me how much I slept, but really, who cares?! I certainly know when I’ve had a bad night of sleep. My biggest issue with all of them is the lack of accuracy. In fact, my smartphone is way smarter than these devices. If you want to see it in action, just check out Lark.

And there is the highly anticipated iWatch, which announced several weeks ago that the healthcare features they were gearing up to offer – to go head to head with the wearable market – were just too low performing for Apple to put its name on. That should sum it up quite nicely right there: instead of being a revolutionary wearable that will make your life better, it’s just a pretty bauble on your arm with the Apple logo. Sigh. Hopefully iWatch 2.0 will prove more robust.

We’ve heard a lot about the opportunity to integrate data from wearables into EMR. Fellow blogger Bill Evans, on his Dose of Digital blog, points out that the ability to bring together personal data and the physician/patient workflow simply isn’t there (or really even wanted?!): “Said one doctor to me (with a sentiment that mirrored others I spoke to), ‘I don’t want your fitness data in my EMR. I don’t have time to read it, and I’m not your personal trainer. I’ll know the minute you get on the scale if you’ve been working out.’” You can read his whole review on wearables here.

And the last word in wearables? Google’s recent patent clearance for a device that is a tiny fan with sensors to track sweat and odor and emit a fragrance to cover it up. “Google’s device would not only avoid bad odors, but it would also help users avoid friends and coworkers,” NY Daily News reports. “The device would be web-connected and linked to the user’s social networks to detect if any friends or coworkers are nearby. If the device detects any contacts, it would send a map of the area to the user’s phone so they can take a different route.” Wow, I guess giving folks the heads up in advance of one’s smelliness will likely evolve into advance notice of passing viruses and mood changes. How could I live without it?!?

But, I believe in some fair and balanced opinion on mHealth and while the wearables market currently looks like a bleak landscape, the FDA is actually trying to help us realize the opportunities that do exist. That is the Hope: without guidance, we wouldn’t have the hope that there is an opportunity to get into the digital health space at all. And the draft guidance for mHealth came faster than guidance for Internet or social media. So far, the FDA has approved low-risk general wellness products in mobile that do not refer to any diseases or conditions and that might help reduce the risk of, or improve living with, certain chronic diseases and conditions.

The biggest barriers to wearables from a marketing perspective are reimbursement, access to the data, and integration of data. In October 2014, Telemedicine (treating patients remotely by phone or other communication means) became reimbursable in Medicare, which opens a significant opportunity for preventative care efficiencies. Medical devices that are integrated with our mobile devices are also receiving approval, and in some cases, code reimbursement. Both of these avenues offer a new dawning of personal technology and professional healthcare synergies, which can only lead to better outcomes with more touchpoints between healthcare professionals and their patients and patient advocates. Who knows, maybe visits to the doctor’s office will become limited to serious acute health events, reducing some of the pressure on the system and eventually reducing costs, while making good healthcare more accessible.

So what can you do as a Pharma marketer with mHealth in its current and evolving state to make sure you take advantage of what is coming? Watch the market, but don’t get sucked into the hype – we still have a ways to go. Make sure the value of a specific channel or program has clear consumer benefit and business merit before jumping in. And finally, explore opportunities to partner before looking to build a solution. After all, you are drug manufacturers, not mobile developers. If someone is doing it well, create a win-win-win opportunity for your patients, your business, and the innovators in the space.


Zoe Dunn
Zoe Dunn, President and CEO of Hale Advisors, is a digital marketing and communications specialist with over twenty years of experience in the field. She has extensive experience in both the agency and commercial marketing side of the pharmaceutical, medical devices, and biotech industries.

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