The data economy: The future of health care is data based - IV

Wearable devices, like a watch, are the first candidates to process personal health care data, entering through the niche of everyday exercise. Credit: IEEE Spectrum

Google programs in Health Care. Infographics by HIT Consultants. See:

Processing of the wealth of data that can be harvested through sensors is likely to start in the personal devices we carry around: our smartphones and smartwatches.

The big guns in consumer electronics, Apple and Samsung on the forefront, and software companies, Googles and Microsoft plus a variety of start ups, are struggling to get a share of a tremendous market measured in trillion of dollars. And they are doing that entering from a back door, the one of personal fitness. It is an easy entry since it does not require any permission from health care authorities, like the FDC who does not regulate fitness related devices but requires conformance to any device that can be used for a medical diagnoses, and generates immediate revenues by selling "stuff" (like smart watches, electronic wrist bands, smart phones) or by leveraging on the customer presence on their clouds (Google).

As I mentioned in previous posts in this series, critics point out that low grade precision of these devices would make any serious health care application impossibile. However, this critique reminds me of what happened in the 70ies with the advent of Mini-Mills. At that time steel production was concentrated in very few hands, with large companies operating in Pittsburgh, Yokohama and the Ruhr. The mini mills were way cheaper but the steel quality produced was very bad. Yet, they found a niche first by entering the iron-rod market and then the one of corrugated roofing. Over time, a decade, the quality improved and by the end of the 80ies the big companies disappeared.  The lesson was clear: do not underestimate technology evolution and the power of low cost solutions.

Apple has launched in 2014 a fitness monitoring platform that is gaining momentum and it is based on the data that can be harvested by their smartphones and more recently by the Apple watch. 

Google has a much more encompassing set of initiatives, see infographics, spanning from the genome to Google Fit, letting you track your day, you may want to try it ;-). Interesting the fact that they are looking at various aspects of Health Care related data harvesting, processing and leveraging (turning data into action) and are partnering with several players in the medical area, as an example with Novartis for the development of smart contact lenses that can continuously analyse glucose content by sampling tears.

If the big ones are moving forwards, and I mentioned just a few of them as point in case, there are also many start ups that see an opportunity in this area. There are, as of 2015, over 1,000 health care related applications in the Android and Apple Store.

All these apps are getting data and process them locally. This solves the problem of privacy, since data are not shared. The Google Health app started in the last decade and was discontinued in 2012/2013. One of the reason mentioned by Google was the lower than expected catch up, and one of the reasons might well have been the privacy concern. 

Another reason, according to few sociologists and observers of consumers' behaviour, is that people are generally not interested in monitoring their physiological parameters (unless a person has a specific problem) and even those buying a wristband or downloading an app to monitor some specific data lose interest after the first few months.

Yet everybody agrees that sharing medical data would boost scientific knowledge and provide practical indication on therapies at individual level.

On the horizon, though, there are signs of an interest from the medical sector to provide patients with data harvesting devices (like the ones produced by iRythm Technologies) to monitor their health status once they are dismissed from the hospital because a patient that needs to be readmitted penalise the hospital. By monitoring the patient in his home, and through its normal life, the doctors can detect early signs of problems that can be fixed just by changing the therapy, whilst if unchecked would require a re-admittance.  This is a completely different path than the one presented before, the creation of apps for well-being, since it is not happening at the edges of health care but at its core.

Both paths are leading to a revolution in health care based on data and are going to affect the economics of this sector.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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