Walgreens introduces API for mobile prescription refills

By: Neil Versel | Feb 5, 2013        

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Walgreens Refill by Scan Android appPharmacy chain Walgreens, which already has one of the most popular mobile health apps out there, has released an application programming interface (API) so software developers can build the company’s prescription scanning and refilling technology into their own apps. The functionality already is in drug information app PocketPharmacist and newly launched personal health record Healthspek, according to Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreens.

The basic Walgreens app is widely used for finding retail locations, refilling prescriptions by scanning bar codes, setting personal medication reminders, looking up medication information, ordering photographic services and making appointments at in-store Take Care Health System clinics. Partners on some of those features include Epocrates and Aetna’s iTriage.

“[Mobile apps] are just one way for us to interact with our customers. And we woke up to the fact that it may actually be even more lucrative to take that connectivity and open it up as an SDK, an API to third-party developers,” Abhi Dhar, group vice president and CTO for the e-commerce division of Walgreens, tells MobiHealthNews.

“We have a rather popular mobile app, but in addition to that we want to offer the creativity of the developer community,” Dhar adds.

Dhar says that more than 40 percent of Walgreens online refill requests now come from the app. “You have your pill bottle, you take your smartphone, you scan the barcode, you select your store, and you’re done. You get a text that your prescription is ready. And our customers have voted with their downloads,” he explains. (Correction: An earlier version of this article stated 40 percent of “refill requests” instead of “online refill requests”.)

The Android version of the Walgreens mobile app has been downloaded between 1 million and 5 million times from Google Play, and the app enjoys an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 from Android users. While Apple does not disclose App Store download volume, Walgreens apps for iPhone and iPad have similarly high ratings.

Walgreens said nearly two years ago that more than 1 million people had signed up to receive texts when their prescriptions are ready.

Mobile is part of the chain’s strategy to drive more traffic into its more than 8,000 U.S. stores.

“From our point of view, we have always maintained that our ubiquitous presence in terms of our retail stores is a critical part of the value proposition that we bring to America. We have always thought of mobile as a bridge across that channel,” Dhar says. “Philosophically, what we’ve done is we’ve used mobile as a way to bridge a transaction that starts in one media and ends in another.”

MobiHealthNews writer Jonah Comstock contributed to this story.

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UK government weighs digital tools for mental health

By: Jonah Comstock | Feb 5, 2013        

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moodscopeA report from the London School of Economics and Political Science recently found that only about a quarter of people with depression or anxiety-related mental health problems in the UK receive treatment. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) sees potential in turning to mobile and digital health tools to solve that access problem and to cut costs, according to a new discussion paper recently published by the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network.

“We were trying to take a look at what are the opportunities that technology can give us to not only transform how we deliver services, but also to run them more efficiently,” Mental Health Network Acting Director Rebecca Cotton told MobiHealthNews. She said that the providers who are member organizations of the Mental Health Network have had a growing interest in mobile mental health technologies.

The paper outlines some of the kinds of mobile mental health tools available in England: mood trackers like Moodscope and Buddy; computerized cognitive behavioral therapy platforms like Beating the Blues and Living Life to the Full; telehealth services like Bosch’s Health Buddy; patient information portals like MyHealthLocker; and patient communities like PatientsLikeMe. It also mentions mental health social network/support structure Big White Wall, whose chief executive Jen Hyatt co-authored the paper.

But the study’s main emphasis is on the question of what role the NHS has going forward to give providers guidance on what digital tools are worthwhile and effective. The Mental Health Network is beginning a mapping project to look at what technology is already being used and how, to be followed by a strategic plan to develop a national framework for digital mental health. The organization has already received funding for the mapping project, which will also include looking at examples from other countries, Cotton said, such as Australia’s eHeadSpace project, a government run online and telephone service for youth mental health.

Some of the questions the Mental Health Network is asking are familiar to anyone following mobile health in the United States, where a recent report published in the Washington Post report drew attention to the number of questionable health apps on the market and the lack of oversight or regulation.

“How do we make sense of what is a rapidly evolving marketplace and make informed choices about which programs and applications to use?” the report asks. “How do we determine what ‘quality’ looks like?”

Jawbone acquires Massive Health to improve UP

By: Brian Dolan | Feb 4, 2013        

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JawboneSan Francisco-based Jawbone, a company best known for fashion-minded Bluetooth headsets and iPod speakers, has acquired mobile health startup Massive Health and design firm Visere for an undisclosed sum to help it refine and improve its own wearable health device, UP. GigaOM Founder Om Malik first broke the news of the acquisition.

“Massive Health was a company born from a passion to make products that make being healthy as easy as using an iPhone. By bringing together the best and brightest from Silicon Valley, we believed we could help galvanize a design renaissance in health,” the startup wrote on its site today. “With this acquisition, we believe we’ve succeeded. By bringing Jawbone and Massive Health together we unify under one roof their world-class product team and our deep software know-how. Together, we’ll make products that help everyone love to live better. Products that can blend in seamlessly with your life: from your wrist, to your phone, to your doctor’s office. It’s a perfect match.”

Massive Health has been relatively quiet since it first launched in late 2010, but it did publicly launch one app, called The Eatery, and quietly tested out another diabetes management-related app, which was at one time called Penguine. Massive Health raised $2.25 million from a number of unnamed angel investors and firms that included Felicis VC, Greylock Discovery Fund, Andreessen Horowitz, Mohr Davidow Ventures and Charles River Ventures.

In its current iteration Jawbone’s UP is a durable, water-resistant bracelet that feeds a companion app with sleep and activity data. Jawbone made headlines when it first launched UP in July 2011 and subsequently sold hundreds of thousands of units on Black Friday of that year. That launch was followed by three weeks of users reporting major problems with the device, and finally by a voluntary refund program and a halt on production in early December 2011. Although Jawbone was lauded for the quick response, the failure was still a major setback for the company’s first foray into self-tracking.

the eateryJawbone offered a full refund at the time, with or without a return of the device, and announced a temporary stop on production — which ended up lasting nearly a year. They said they used that time to troubleshoot the hardware problems with the device, and to refine and develop the software. The company eventually relaunched UP in November 2012 and in the announcement it claimed the device went through “nearly three million hours of real-world testing”.

Since Jawbone’s UP was designed by fashion and tech designer Yves Behar, it should come as no surprise that of all the health startups it could have acquired it picked the design-centric team at Massive Health.

When Massive Health first launched its co-founder Aza Raskin, the former creative lead of Mozilla’s Firefox, wrote: “Health care needs to have its design renaissance, where products and services are redesigned to be responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties.”

In a subsequent blog post in early 2011, the company’s other co-founder Sutha Kamal, who ended up leaving the company last year, wrote that the real need was better design for chronic condition apps and services not fitness apps, which has been Jawbone’s focus with UP.

“There are some great wellness and fitness apps out there,” Kamal wrote at the time. “Whether it’s Nike+, or Cyclemeter (my personal favorite), if you want an app to help you get and stay active, you’re spoiled for choice. But what if you’re actually ill? Then there’s nothing sleek or sexy to help you manage your disease. You’re back to the world of clinical health applications that aren’t especially friendly, easy to understand or use, and certainly aren’t social.”

With Massive Health’s acquisition by Jawbone — a company clearly more interested in fitness than chronic condition management today — the question is: Has the startup abandoned its original plan to bring a design renaissance to healthcare? Is it simply going to help Jawbone make more beautiful fitness devices and apps?

DoD’s new Android app connects to wearable devices for biofeedback

By: Jonah Comstock | Feb 4, 2013        

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biozen t2 dodThe National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), an agency of the Department of Defense, has been introducing online and mobile health tools for people in the military, veterans, and their families since 2008. Their newest offering, BioZen, is an effort to get ahead of the trend of personal sensors and provide a free mobile tool to help people use those sensors to improve their health through the practice of biofeedback.

“One of the things we do here at T2 is constantly look for ways to innovate mobile health. Wearable technology is one of our interests,” David Cooper, a psychologist at T2, told MobiHealthNews. “One thing we didn’t see a lot of was people using biosensors for biofeedback. But we found a way to integrate some biosensors through the mobile phone using Bluetooth.”

Biofeedback is a therapy wherein patients wear sensors while experiencing a problem like chronic pain or migraines. By seeing exactly how their physiological response changes throughout the experience, patients can gain control over those responses and, therefore, over their symptoms. It can be used in conjunction with other therapies or by itself: sometimes the awareness itself is therapeutic, other times biofeedback is a tool for determining what’s the most effective way of dealing with a condition.

Biofeedback is an appealing area for mobile health because traditional biofeedback technology is cumbersome, requiring the patient to be hooked up to a lot of wires with limited mobility. Mobile biofeedback, which only requires some wireless sensors and a smartphone, not only allows a patient to take the therapy home and use it more often and more casually, it can also be used in the clinic, lowering the price point and effort involved.

Cooper says there is a stigma attached to mental health for many returning servicemembers. Part of the idea behind a biofeedback app is to provide a discreet personal treatment option for people who don’t want to take medication or don’t want others to know they’re in therapy.

“That’s why we like developing for mobile devices,” said Cooper. “People don’t know if you’re checking Facebook or learning about your PTSD.”

For that reason, the app is designed to work in the context of therapy, but it also includes tutorials so people can learn to do biofeedback on their own. It includes a highly informational graph-based interface, but it also includes a single-variable pictorial interface where, for instance, a picture of a tree becomes brighter and more detailed as your gamma waves increase.

The BioZen Android app works with a variety of commercially available sensors with open APIs. Sensors the app can interact with include electroencephalogram (EEG), electrocardiogram (ECG), electromyography, galvanic skin response, respiratory rate, and skin temperature. The app can either work with just one sensor or a whole suite. The device currently works with brainwave sensors from NeuroSky and BrainAthlete, as well as physiological sensors from Zephyr Technology and Shimmer Research, sensors Cooper said were chosen because they are commercially available and have open APIs.

“We’re trying to move into a more open framework when it comes to health sensors,” Cooper said. “We know that’s an important consumer area, we know its going to be important in mHealth coming up. So we’re trying to incorporate as many of these APIs in our future products as we can.”

Cooper said T2 likes to make its apps multiplatform, but because of the difficulty in interfacing with Bluetooth, he doesn’t think an iOS version of BioZen is likely.

T2 has 10 Apple and Android health apps available, including a mood tracker, an app for managing with PTSD, and an app to help combat stress with breathing exercises. T2 recently updated the mood tracker app with a new capability: users can now export and share their mood records with friends or care providers. In addition, the agency maintains two online communities to help people in the service and their families deal with the wide range of issues affecting them: afterdeployment.org and militarykidsconnect.org.

Cooper said the DoD is careful to only release apps based on research-driven practices, but they don’t wait until the apps themselves are clinically proven to release them. T2 has published 75 papers since 2008, however, and is planning to do efficacy studies on BioZen in the future.

How digital health tools help kids form better habits

By: Jonah Comstock | Feb 1, 2013        

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Zamzee badges

Rewards badges from Zamzee

The Health Resources and Services Administration at HHS is working on a new texting initiative, based on the successful public health texting initiative Text4Baby, called TXT4Tots. The department is soliciting via the Federal Registry for ways to distribute their library of text messages designed to promote wellness, nutrition and exercise for parents of children under five.

But the government isn’t the only one looking for ways to leverage digital health solutions to promote kids’ health and wellness.

Even as the players solidify in the burgeoning adult health tracking space, a growing number of companies is looking to apply digital health and self-tracking lessons to the problem of childhood obesity, and the challenge of getting kids to be more active. First Lady Michelle Obama’s high-profile Let’s Move initiative even acknowledges the role digital health can play in getting kids active: the initiative included an Apps for Healthy Kids contest on challenge.gov. The winner was Smash Your Food, from Food N’ Me, a game that builds kids’ awareness of the fat, sugar and oil content of different foods by letting them guess those numbers and then check their guess through a simulation of smashing the food in a compressor. A similar app from Medtronic uses an animal avatar called Lenny the Lion to teach kids with diabetes about carb counting.

Getting kids moving: Zamzee, GeoPalz, and Sqord

One prominent emerging solution is web and mobile platforms with accompanying activity trackers that use social and gaming mechanics to spur kids to activity. One of the earliest entrants is Zamzee, a platform that spun out of HopeLab in 2010.

“In terms of where kids are spending their time, the engagement with digital technology is increasingly pervasive,” said Richard Tate, VP of Communications and Marketing at HopeLab. “It’s a lot of time with technology. A lot of people have pointed to that as part of the ‘problem’ that has led to sedentary behavior. We were interested in turning that on its head, seeing if digital technology could be part of the solution.”

In Zamzee’s system, kids wear a Zamzee Activity Monitor, a plastic tracker with a customizable skin. The device tracks their movement, not just steps, the company says, but intensity of activity: whether or not it fits into the “moderate or vigorous” categories considered to be most beneficial to kids. When kids plug the device’s USB slider into a computer, they gain “Pointz” based on how much they’ve moved, which they can use to buy prizes like skins for their Tracker, big ticket items like iPods, or even donations to a charity (a surprisingly popular choice, a Zamzee rep told MobiHealthNews). HopeLab recently released an efficacy study which showed Zamzee got kids to move 60 percent more than non-users over a six month period.

Another system, which MobiHealthNews mentioned in our CES 2013 slideshow, is GeoPalz (their forthcoming mobile-based system is called iBitz). GeoPalz markets their product to parents at Whole Foods and REI stores. They provide a pedometer, worn on the hip or shoe and shaped like, for instance, a lady bug or a soccer ball, and a web and mobile portal. With GeoPalz, kids read their steps taken off a screen on the pedometer and manually enter that number into a website, which converts the steps into points they can use to buy goods selected and priced by their parents. The system has as back-end that allows parents to select appropriate gifts from Amazon.com and set a number of points for each product they think is appropriate.

GeoPalz also partners with game makers (like online flash game maker Nitrome) to license versions of their games on the GeoPalz site. The number of activity points a child has collected during the day will buy a corresponding number of minutes playing a game – once they expire, it’s locked until the kid moves some more. iBitz, which also syncs steps automatically, will take that one step further — partnered game developers have created versions of their games where kids can use activity points to buy in-game goods like secret items and achievements. Keep reading>>

MD Anderson plastic surgeons pilot MDconnectME app for patient updates

By: Neil Versel | Feb 1, 2013        

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MDconnectMEMDconnectME, the Philadelphia-based maker of a mobile and Web app that lets surgical teams send quick updates to designated family members about surgery progress, has launched a pilot program with the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Surgeons in the Department of Plastic Reconstructive Surgery will be using the MDconnectME system to update the families of people undergoing reconstructive cancer surgery at the Houston institution, MDconnectME CEO Scott Anzel tells MobiHealthNews. “The use case will be the same” as with other MDconnectME customers, Anzel says.

The intended purpose of the app is to provide a little peace of mind to people waiting on surgical patients, though some users have found novel ways of employing the communications tool. Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, for example, pressed MDconnectME into service to update people about the location and condition of their loved ones when that hospital had to take on extra patients evacuated from other hospitals during superstorm Sandy last October.

Anzel doesn’t have many details about the M.D. Anderson pilot just yet. “We’re starting with a few key surgeons, and then we’ll go from there,” he says.

The company will take the M.D. Anderson experience to help refine its product, Anzel adds. “We continue to be committed to making this better,” he says.

For more, watch this recent segment about MDconnectME from WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.