Healthcare's appeal and barriers for wireless operators

By Brian Dolan
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By Philippa Hobbs, Business Research Executive, Informa Telecoms & Media

Informa Mobile HealthcareInnovation in mobile healthcare technology is burgeoning but implementation is hampered by the very industry this technology exists to support. The relationship between healthcare systems and health technology can be tortuous, though mutual benefits to levels of patient care and to the bottom line will, if only slowly, drive the sector forward.

As operators look for new opportunities to drive revenue in a stricken market, mobile healthcare is gaining significant traction. Delivering tailored mobile services to healthcare providers may seem a niche business, as healthcare is only one of a number of enterprise verticals and in the UK public market, at least, not exactly known for being a cash-rich or tech-savvy industry. Yet the healthcare vertical offers what operators most desire in the face of a struggling economy -- loyal, long-life customers in need of specialist solutions across a large, mobile workforce, and a captive future audience for new revenue-generating innovations such as machine-to-machine communications.

Healthcare as an enterprise presents complicated demands to any supplier - it is fragmented and diverse, spread across a variety of clinical environments, with workforces both in the field and on site, varied end users and wholly variable management depending on how care provision is funded. It is a market with specialist needs, requiring robust and reliable telecommunications for health-critical, as well as business-critical decision-making.

The definition of mobile healthcare, according to the various industry players, is a grey area, spanning, it seems, everything from general enterprise services for doctors' surgeries - secure email, mobile access to clinical files, business messaging to patients - to mobile technology that plays a direct role in the provision of care - remote monitoring of a patient's glucose levels or heart rate. The wide range of possible services is largely a reflection of the innovation gap between different healthcare providers such as publicly-funded systems (the UK's National Health Service, for example) and private systems. While customers towards the ‘laggard' end of the spectrum must adopt basic services before they can roll out advanced applications, it is a gap that is likely to narrow over time as general enterprise services become commonplace. At this point, mHealth will be understood in its obvious sense - mobile technology to directly support the provision of care, which is where the most exciting activity is happening.

Short term barriers must be overcome before this point is reached, of course -- the UK's National Health Service market presents significant challenges to deployment of advanced mobile healthcare services by its slow, bureaucratic and wide-ranging nature. There must be adjusted supporting mechanisms for new systems such as clinician training and remuneration for non face-to-face monitoring and treatment, which will drive usage of services at the grassroots and influence buying decisions long term. Prospects for innovation look promising thanks to increased investment in research at EU level, as long as this continues. Private sector healthcare, as a growing market, may prove to be a better prospect for telecoms investors in the short term.

Looking to the US's private health system, this seems to be the case. Healthcare providers have long been corporate customers to mobile network operators, and cross-sector collaborations for new product strategy are emerging more and more. Dedicated industry bodies, such as the Continua Alliance, are driving both sectors to engage on issues surrounding standards, device interoperability, component cost reduction and quick routes to market for the benefit of all parties.

Although the market for mHealth applications is young, the level of innovation -- not just in the US but globally -- suggests that it is one that will grow. There is an identifiable need for mobile applications in a number of key areas of healthcare, which a myriad of application vendors are attempting to meet.

It is also encouraging for the mHealth market that government bodies are researching, and investing in, remote monitoring technologies to support aging and chronically ill populations -- a key driver of activity by all players.

With significant short term barriers, and the niche nature of the healthcare industry, the mHealth market may not drive substantial service revenues for mobile network operators immediately. However, with remote monitoring trends growing in response to health trends, future data demands may well present a greater long-term opportunity for revenue capture by network operators, realizable when high volumes of handsets capable of collecting and transmitting data are shipped, networks have desired capacity and there is wider deployment of connected monitoring devices.

If measured by the number of people requiring long-term monitoring -- those with chronic illness such as diabetes -- the addressable market for monitoring devices, connected wirelessly to mobile handsets or embedded on ‘converged' handsets, is already significant and growing. 800 million people -- the majority of which are likely to be existing mobile subscribers -- are likely candidates for monitoring and may, with feature-rich handsets becoming mainstream, bring volume to the mobile healthcare device market.

But fragmentation in innovation and services on offer is a barrier to the mHealth market. In order for the market to grow, players must collaborate and synergise their business models in order that applications can be bundled and implemented on a wide scale according to the healthcare end user need. This would reduce capex for healthcare organisations and increase scalability for application vendors.

And, bringing the right products to market requires not only collaboration between chip and device manufacturers and operators but also collaboration at all levels with the healthcare sector. The medical sector, medical device companies and telecoms players must continue to work together to achieve interoperability for scalable deployment.

Two highly specialist industries with niche technical expertise should be able to merge their efforts effectively. But, not only because the healthcare sector is traditionally a late adopter, but because applications must be accepted as clinically sound (technically and ethically) by the industry to be adopted long term, the process may well be a slow one.

Philippa Hobbs is a Business Research Executive at Informa Telecoms & Media, specializing in mobile services and industry research. Philippa has recently authored a report on mobile healthcare, titled Mobile Healthcare: Markets and Trends for M-health Applications. For more information: www.informatm.com/mobilehealth

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