Fitbit and the mHealth Evolution
November 24, 2014
When Fitbit announced that it is rolling out three new wearable health-monitoring devices — including one that monitors heart rate through the user’s wrist — I was excited, as this further underscores the ongoing collision between healthcare and digital technology that is fundamentally changing the way patients collect and share their healthcare data.
This collision is not limited to wearables. Our phones are now playing an important role in helping us manage our health. The introduction of Apple’s HealthKit come at a time when there are more than 100,000 healthcare apps available, and the numbers increase daily. These apps do everything from helping athletes record their training, to providing chronically ill patients with tools to track key health indicators like heart rate and blood pressure. Quintiles’ own MediGuard app helps patients manage their medications and will even alert users of a recall or safety issue.
This widespread use of healthcare apps is part of the move toward a more wellness-focused healthcare system, where patients and physicians are incented to prevent, rather than just treat, disease. Almost a third of app users today are fitness-focused (28%), slightly less than the 31% of users who have chronic illness, according to the 2014 State of mHealth report. Though those numbers are expected to shift further apart as the healthcare industry embraces mobile technology and physicians begin to rely more on applications more for remote monitoring of ill patients. Indeed, the emphasis on overall disease management is already leading to innovative solutions such as INREACH, a patient support program for opioid dependence, and BlueStar, a mobile prescription therapy for managing diabetes, among others.
One of the greatest outcomes of this trend is that it allows patients to capture data in real time, rather than trying to recall a summary of their condition over the previous month, when they meet with their physician. Such accuracy alone promises to improve health outcomes as it gives patients and physicians more accurate data and real-time triggers that allow them to preemptively respond to shifts in health status as they occur.
The question now, is where do biopharmaceutical companies fit into this tech trend? Healthcare apps and wearable devices are gaining prominence in the care delivery paradigm, and pharma companies should be among the leaders delivering these tools to market. Device-driven patient outcomes data cannot only enable myriad observational research opportunities, but also help inform the development of new therapies by providing clearer insight into real-world conditions. Although there are good examples of this already happening in the field — Quintiles recently initiated a device-driven program to collect observational data from asthma patients — biopharma is being deeply overshadowed by the tech industry. The report shows that of the six categories of mHealth app developers, pharma and hospitals have “the longest way ahead of themselves to find their role in the mHealth app ecosystem.”
This prediction should impel our industry to think more strategically about how we can play an active role in this new healthcare marketplace. Our industry is full of companies that have developed state-of-the-art therapies and medical devices to help people lead fuller and more productive lives. Why are these same companies not at the leading edge of mobile health app solutions? And more importantly, how can we move to the head of the pack?
The best answer, as always, is through teamwork. We may not have the level programming expertise that companies like FitBit, Nike or Apple bring to the table, but nor do they have the profound medical knowledge that our people have developed over decades. Rather than trying to compete with them, we should look for ways to collaborate. Tapping into the incredibly innovative minds that reside in the tech world will not only enable us to overcome an internal lack of programming talent, but it also create opportunities to think more strategically about healthcare. Collaboration has always been the cornerstone of success in biopharma development. If we can find ways to take our internal industry models for collaboration and use them to connect across industries, it could lead to incredible advances in the way we use technology to generate better health outcomes, both for individuals and entire populations. In a value-based healthcare economy, that has to be the ultimate goal.