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The drivers behind digital health apps

ICE Graveyard 1/08/2016 Vish Banthia

There has been an explosion of digitalhealth startups in recent years. The market is expected to reach $233.3 billion by 2020, with the primary driver coming from the mobile health market.

Companies are springing up to offer solutions for the escalating costs of health care, wellness, physician shortages and the need for improved prevention and management of expensive chronic conditions.

A quick browse of your local Best Buy store will reveal a wide range of fitness trackers and wearable health sensors. There also is a selection of “on-demand” scheduling services for the health conscious. Now, patients can even access virtual consultation and telemedicine platforms, such as VirtuMedix and eVisit, at their fingertips.

While the high-tech, quick-fix approach may generate substantial buzz in the media, the question remains: Are these really delivering value to the medical ecosystem and improving health outcomes?

Investors are convinced, but is there true value?

Key investor communities seem to be convinced of the promise of medtech. In 2015, 500 Startups announced their first batch to include digitalhealth startups, and digitalhealth continued to be one of the central themes of their 2016 class. There also is an increasing number of other prestigious accelerator programs for promising digitalhealth startups, including Techstars, which partners with  the world-renowned hospital system, Cedars-Sinai.

That’s not surprising when you consider that 52 percent of people gather health-related information on their smartphones, according to GreatCall, and mobile health and fitness-focused apps represent one of the fastest growing mobile app categories.

The question is, who is actually using these products? A Nielsen survey noted that half of wearable owners are in the 18-34 age range, and 44 percent of people aged 30-39 use healthapps.

Fitness trackers on their own are extremely unlikely to encourage true behavior change.

However, as a physician who trained in the heart of Silicon Valley and continues to practice in the nation’s most wellness-obsessed state (California), it seems clear to me that the patients who wear fitness trackers and other wearables are ironically the ones who don’t have any particular health need for the data in the first place — they are often already healthy.

Perhaps this is why up to one-third of early adopters of wearables readily admit that, after a few weeks of use, their tracker devices seem to find their way onto a closet shelf only to collect dust.

What is the tipping point?

A combination of key drivers will ultimately serve as a market catalyst for consumer adoption and behavior change (in this order):

  • Financial burden

  • Prolonged waiting periods

  • Insurer and provider promotion of technologies

The challenge for the current crop of digital applications is not only to ensure their services are compelling enough to the general public, but also to make sure they are addressing a real market need.

And it’s essential that they do. According to a report from McKinsey, 31 percent of U.S. healthcare costs of $3 trillion can be attributed to behaviorally influenced chronic conditions. The report goes on to say that unless health systems find ways to get people to change their behavior, healthcare costs will remain extremely high.

The reality is, apps that cost a user time, money and inconvenience will fall by the wayside. Those that save on time, money and convenience, however, are far more likely  to stay relevant.

Nevertheless, it’s not enough to provide convenience and ease of access with just a telemedicine consultation and a three-step app. Nor is it enough to only have a tracking device gamified to motivate people to walk more steps or climb more stairs. Fitness trackers on their own are extremely unlikely to encourage true behavior change.

So what will provide the motivation?

Waiting prolonged periods of time to access healthcare providers and procedures is a main driver for digital adoption. Coupled with consumer awareness of how digitalhealth technologies can also be to their financial advantage, we will likely start to see a greater shift in behavior.

Moreover, when medical and health professionals begin prescribing technology to help develop these potentially life-extending habits, we’ll see further adoption of this technology among patients who really need it. It’s one thing to choose which fun, new technologies to explore, but it’s a very different and compelling scenario when your doctor tells you that it’s going to save your life.

Who will win the digitalhealth race?

Ultimately, those most successful at consumer adoption will be the ones who can address all of the consumer motivators for change — financial pain and ease of navigation in today’s healthcare system. And among the winners, their products will need to deliver on a value proposition trifecta — convenience, trust and price.

If you have to pay significantly more for being unhealthy or if you are financially incentivized to walk an extra five miles per week, you’ll likely adopt a technology that will help you make the change. If you can’t see a doctor for six weeks because of a physician shortage, you might also be inclined to try a virtual consultation.

Until consumers personally encounter these challenges, it will likely be a waiting game for many digitalhealth platforms. A prominent medical device company representative once told me that it is very difficult to get surgeons to change their way of operating and thinking. I agree — but it is even more challenging to get patients to change their behavior.

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