Does mHealth really need to be free?

By: Brian Dolan | Jun 23, 2010        

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Money TreeBy David Doherty, Business Development, 3G Doctor

Rob Havasy, a Business Analyst and mHealth Strategist at the Center for Connected Health, has posted a somewhat confusing article entitled “The Uncertain Price of mHealth.”

The basic premise is that the move from flat rate unlimited data to tiered data plans is something that “will surely impact smartphone use in mHealth.”

The article goes on to explain that data caps introduced by operators (who are rapidly losing interest in supporting Data Hogs who are eating up >2 GB per month) “throws uncertainty into the equation and will cause patients to reconsider embracing mHealth solutions and providers and payers to hesitate paying for them.”

As a basis for this argument Havasy explains that “until patients can be reassured that adopting an mHealth intervention will not incur additional, unexpected costs, they will be reluctant.” Doesn’t this fail to achieve a rather basic prerequisite of good business — that you offer services that customers can see value in and are prepared to pay for?

Havasy seems to be all at sea when it comes to appreciating the cost of data vs. SMS. Indeed mobile data services offer much better value than the “simple text messaging program” Havasy’s team recently offered to a population of young patients (of whom 20% refused to even consider due to the cost of SMS) eg. in comparison to mobile data plans of 2GB per month for $15, text messaging “penalties of only 25 cents per additional message” could be regarded as extortionate!

Havasy goes on to explain that after speaking “with colleagues and with other people in the mHealth field… we all agree on one thing: unless we can tell a patient that our program is absolutely free to them, adoption is an uphill battle.” Havasy then justifies this by suggesting that the underperforming Text4Baby program offers unequivocal proof for this.

“One of the central features of the program is that, in conjunction with the CTIA (the Wireless Industry Association) and the major American cellular carriers, messages are delivered free of charge to the user. This was considered a requirement for the program’s success – why should we think differently for other mHealth interventions?”

What’s convincing Rob and his colleagues at the Center for Connected Health that patients aren’t prepared to pay a single dime out of their own pocket for a service that makes their care experience better?

The final paragraph is a call on operators: “If the carriers are listening, please, give us fixed cost plans. Make it simpler – not harder – to figure costs and I’m sure you’ll be rewarded. The inevitable result of these pricing changes will be a shift away from the smartphone (and consumer data plans) as an mHealth platform and a shift towards more dedicated devices with embedded connectivity (think Amazon’s Kindle). Negotiated data rates and plans by device manufacturers can provide the cost certainty the market needs. Unfortunately, this will come at the cost of the rapid and innovative development made possible by smartphone platforms. The Center for Connected Health continues to investigate both dedicated and smartphone platforms for mHealth solutions, but the predictable costs associated with dedicated devices are very attractive for near-term deployments.”

Surely there’s a better answer to this than calling on operators to offer unlimited data plans? Which patients need to send 10GB of data a month anyway? Why isn’t Rob and the CFCH celebrating the opportunity that these more value conscious data plans offer?

Wouldn’t it actually be unfair if mobile operators retained their unlimited data plans so that patients (who wanted to use mobile data to improve their care experience) were faced with expensive data plans because they had to subsidise the mobile data usage of other more data intensive users?

Originally posted over at the 3GDoctor Blog