There has been more than $100 million worth of investments into mobile health companies during the first quarter of 2012 alone, according to a recent MobiHealthNews report. And that’s not the only evidence that the industry is healthy: in an interview, MobiHealthNews Editor and Co-founder Brian Dolan told Profit there will be more than 13,000 health-related iPhone apps available for consumer use by this summer. Here, Dolan tells Profit readers about the trends that he’s watching now:
Profit: Why is mobile an effective platform for health?
Dolan: One thing we realized when we started our company and publication in 2008 was that mobile devices could do so much more than serve as a converged entertainment device. The device is so personal and it’s always with you: you don’t leave home without three things: your wallet, keys — and phone. That makes the mobile unique.
Your health can cause concerns at any point of your day. Health problems don’t only happen when you’re home or at your doctor’s office. The fact that these devices are always there, providing connectivity, means there is a huge opportunity. It’s fairly obvious that in the long term these devices are going to be central to managing our own health, keeping tabs on our vital signs and what’s going on in our bodies at any given point.
Profit: What are some of the opportunities and challenges you are seeing right now?
Dolan: Last year the big focus was figuring out what the regulatory agencies were going to do. Obviously, there are more safety concerns with health information than there are with listening to music on a mobile phone. Some of the companies creating new medical apps were not interfacing with the Federal Drug Administration and didn't realize they were under existing regulations. Last year, the FDA came out with proposed guidelines to explain the regulations and put them in today’s context. That was really groundbreaking and that conversation continues.
This year, the main focus is on really proving that health apps, services and connected devices work. That means proving that they improve health outcomes and help people get better or stay well. For the most part, mobile health offerings are much less expensive than traditional medical devices, and in some cases people are going to be willing to pay out of their pocket. But in other cases there’s the expectation — if this is a true health service — then insurance companies or the government is going to pay.
Given the macro trends in health care costs today, companies need to show these devices lead to prevention, keep people out of the hospital, or stop conditions from getting worse. They need to show they save the health care system money. That’s the next step. We’re going to start to see some companies going through clinical trials and publishing results. We expect to see that as a trend that develops towards the end of the year and next year.
Profit: What about mobile health games?
Dolan: Last year, when you asked, what makes your app engaging, the answer you heard from everyone was “It’s gamified, it’s going to be social, and you’ll compete with your friends.” But that’s sort of fading, because gaming alone isn’t enough. You have to think about the whole user experience. How do you create something unique that people are going to want to use continuously? It’s very difficult to do.
An app can be fun like a game and have a gaming look to it or little features that are elements of competition, but it doesn’t have to be a game in the traditional sense. For example, if you’re a child with asthma, there’s a device called a peak flow meter that measures breath power. But if you are having trouble breathing, it’s difficult to breath into something as hard as you can.
So, if you pair that peak flow meter with a tablet or a computer through short range wireless or blue tooth, you can represent the amount of air you’re expelling in some sort of fun way, like by showing something rising. That is fun and engaging — and it doesn’t feel like you are using a medical device when you’re looking at a screen that appears to be a game. But you’re not competing with anyone, you’re not trying to win points, it’s just fun.
So, making a user experience or design that includes some elements of games is great when appropriate, but gamification is not the end of the story.