Healthcare, keep kicking the tires on wellness

By Brian Dolan
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Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsThis week results from a study conducted in 2008 found their way into a medical journal: Virtual coaches work. According to the study, conducted by researchers at the Center for Connected Health, Northeastern University, and Massachusetts General Hospital overweight people wearing wireless pedometers upped their average activity levels by a significant amount if they checked in with a virtual coach a few times a week.

The researchers contend that virtual coaches will help people adhere to other care regimens, too.

In other news, the Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD publication interviewed Andy Smith, CEO of fitness app developer DailyBurn, who argued the growing crop of connected fitness devices are just "glorified accelerometers" and only helpful to a small subset of "Type A" personalities. Smith points out that most smartphones today already come equipped with accelerometers embedded, which makes asking people to pay an additional $100 or $150 for a dedicated fitness device that does little more than a smartphone fitness app "not quite a gimmick, but close to it."

DailyBurn started out creating data-centric smartphone fitness apps, but since it got acquired by IAC in 2010 it began to pivot its strategy. Smith says it has moved away from data and is now offering an app that provides video clips that aim to encourage users to exercise four to six times per week.

Perhaps it's not surprising to hear that a fitness app developer is skeptical about dedicated fitness devices, but it seems that if done correctly -- virtual coaches -- which should be at the heart of any of these fitness offerings whether app or dedicated device, can significantly increase a user's activity levels.

As we learned in our research report, mObesity, nearly all of those companies offering dedicated fitness devices and weight loss apps today believe their wares have a mass market appeal. They don't believe these are tools for a data-obsessed subgroup. They believe these apps and gadgets could find adoption but any type of user -- if they are designed to be easy enough to use, inexpensive, and fun.

The virtual coach researchers used some of the simplest wireless fitness devices available today -- Fitlinxx wireless pedometers coupled with an avatar-based virtual coach program that participants accessed via their home computers. When compared to the control group, those meeting with the virtual coach increased activity levels equivalent to a half mile of steps taken.

It may be true that today healthcare and wellness are two separate markets, as one MobiHealthNews reader pointed out last week in a comment:

"Finally recognition that fitness and healthcare are two very distinct and separate fields. It astonishes me that healthcare execs are lulled into kicking the tires on a B2C solution, drawn by their consumer interest. Almost all B2C solutions have been devised by young, healthy and spirited entrepreneurs for that narrow slice of young, healthy, avid fitness enthusiasts. The solution has no place in the life of a 52 yr old Type II Diabetic with a BMI of 36 and uncontrolled BP dangerously averaging 148/96. They don't need to know the times of their splits. They barely even walk."

The average age of participants in the virtual coach study was 42. They were all overweight or obese. They benefited from a virtual coach. Would they have benefited more from a Nike+ Fuel Band? Maybe, but probably not given the way its sports-focused platform is designed today.

Consumerization of health is one of the key trends mobile health is driving. In order for today's sick care system to transition to one more focused on prevention, healthcare industry incumbents need to continue to be lulled into kicking the tires on consumer health startups. And when consumer health startups develop virtual coach companions for their fitness devices and apps, they should consider how many Baby Boomers might use it.

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