How will the mobile health market evolve in 2012?

By Neil Versel
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Neil_Versel_LargeHappy new year, and welcome to 2012! As the year begins, I have some burning questions about mobile and wireless healthcare that I hope to see answered in the next 12 months.

Will consumers understand mobile technology in healthcare? When I checked into a San Diego hotel for the Healthcare Unbound conference last summer, the clerk asked me if I was in town for some big software show going on at the convention center. No, I said, I was there for this other, smaller meeting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt about wireless healthcare technologies.

She gave me a blank stare.

I then explained the concepts of connected health and aging in place with a simple question: What if you had an elderly parent faced with a decision to move into assisted living (or "assisted dying," as my late grandfather once called it) or a nursing home? Would you rather spend thousands of dollars a month to institutionalize your loved one in a sterile, unfamiliar environment, or would you invest a few hundred dollars in monitoring technology that would allow mom or dad to stay safe at home?

Immediately, a light went on. The clerk got it.

Unfortunately, I have had to use this anecdote several times since then since people I encounter outside healthcare simply don't understand. This shows me two things: that the general public hasn't been introduced to new ways of thinking about healthcare; and that it really isn't so hard to explain what we are talking about here. It's just that nobody has taken the time to explain things in simple terms.

Will people finally start to differentiate between healthcare and consumer wellness/fitness when it comes to mobility?

Healthcare is not the same as health. Health describes a person's state of well being. Healthcare is the industry of providing care services.

As I noted after the 2011 Health 2.0 Conference back in September, "In many cases, people seemed to confuse 'health 2.0' with 'fitness 2.0.'" Fitness apps target people looking to get in shape or train for an event like a marathon. Wellness apps are for those who want to live healthy lifestyles through diet and exercises. Healthcare apps are either for professionals to manage their work or for patients to deal with a specific health condition.

They are distinct markets, yet so many people still equate the two. The vendors that understand the differences will prosper. Those that don't will misplace their marketing efforts and ultimately fail.

I'm not completely convinced, either, that the wellness/fitness market is more than an interesting niche that's getting close to saturation right now. I used a fitness app last summer to train for my very first 100-mile "century" bike ride. But I also understand that the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry in this country is driven by care of chronic diseases and by inpatient hospitalizations, not by people with cycling hobbies.

Is there a consumer market for healthcare tablets? We already know that Apple has won the hearts, minds and dollars of hundreds of thousands of physicians with the breakthrough iPad, while Android, Windows and BlackBerry tablets barely register with doctors. But the market for consumers appears to be wide open.

Independa is betting on Windows with its consumer tablet for home healthcare. Ideal Life has private-labeled Android tablets. But are these products selling well enough to sustain a market? I suspect we will find out in 2012.

Will EHR vendors properly integrate mobility and will mobile vendors integrate with EHRs? Devices that capture data are wonderful for certain purposes, but the real gains in terms of efficiency and improved care won't come until there is true interoperability between electronic health records, wireless devices and mobile apps.

EHR vendors continue to struggle with finding the right form factor for delivering mobile data to physicians. Likewise, device manufacturers and app developers are searching for the right ways to populate EHRs  with data their products collect.

This question might not get answered this year, since I do not expect the requirements for Stage 2 of "meaningful use" -- due out by mid-2012 -- to include device integration. We might see this in Stage 3, which, given the delay of Stage until 2014, is not likely to begin until 2016. But it is not too early to begin asking the vendors when they might deliver.