WebMD expects early 2014 launch for its health device marketplace

By Brian Dolan

WebMD PlayIn the first quarter of 2014, WebMD will launch its fifth major iteration, which will include a marketplace for buying personal health devices and some FDA-cleared medical devices, thanks to a major partnership with Qualcomm Life and its 2net ecosystem.

"We wanted to do a few things that were unique and ground-breaking, so we did not want this to be fitness focused, we wanted it to be condition focused," WebMD CTO and COO Bill Pence told MobiHealthNews in an interview at the mHealth Summit. "So we are bringing in FDA[-cleared] devices like glucometers and mixing that together with other sensor data. That's the other point here: This is a multisensor app. We are going to aggregate the data in the app on behalf of the user and derive insights that are of some value to the user. We are very aware that users get fatigued with these devices after awhile. We want to make it something they stick with longer because we have the ability to wrap it with content."

WebMD is building an in-app storefront where users can buy a number of the devices in the 2net ecosystem. The storefront will be embedded in the company's flagship app, which Pence says now has 19 million downloads.

"We are going for a mainstream audience not a highly fitness-oriented, quantified self audience. So, we will have a little bit of education to do. We are going to drop this into our existing app, which will get it in front of an existing audience of 19 million downloads. We will make them aware of the capabilities and educate them. Then we will allow them to go forward and actually purchase the devices right from the app, because it is more convenient. When the devices arrive, they can activate them right from the app and data will begin flowing from 2net into our secure server [and displayed in the app]."

While the WebMD 5.0 app will include a traditional data heavy screen for those who prefer reviewing their data, but Pence said the goal is to make the information more approachable for a mainstream audience. The app's design builds on the company's WebMD Baby app with a "card design" format and an infinite scroll. The app includes insights and motivational behavioral triggers along with gamified elements like badges and peer to peer sharing, Pence said.

Initially, the app will be wrapped in a program focused on obesity and diabetes, because that brings a very large audience. Users will be able to set their own goals to work on a particular aim like sleeping better or improving A1c. WebMD is also including clinical insights based on the data coming in from the various sensors.

"If your weight is changing like this and your blood sugar is changing like this, then according to guidelines you should be concerned and should take some action," Pence said. "Insights are a big component of what we are trying to accomplish."

While the initial launch only includes support for devices in Qualcomm's ecosystem, WebMD CEO David Schlanger told MobiHealthNews that the company is open to working with other device companies, too. Pence said that the app will begin supporting one other sensor data stream though:

"We are going to support onboard capabilities like the motion coprocessor on the iPhone 5s," Pence said. While he acknowledged the popularity of dedicated wearables right now, "over time, increasingly, we think people will just use their smartphones as their activity monitors," he said.

The revamped WebMD of early 2014 will build on a big beta launch the company had this past summer when it knit together its physician-facing Medscape community and its consumer or patient-facing apps together for the first time. An important part of that beta was WebMD's enabling its Medscape users to "prescribe" patient instructions from their app to their patients who use the WebMD mobile app. The company sees this consumer-facing marketplace launch as an important next step for their patient engagement strategy.

"Today your doctor might tell you to lose some weight before you come back in six months from now," Schlanger explains. "It’s all on you -- whether you succeed or fail -- it’s on you. But in the future if your physician has a financial stake, he’s not just going to say 'go lose weight', he’s going to offer you a program to lose weight. He's going to tell you he wants you to send him your data. An easy way to do that is to buy a wireless scale, upload the data to this program through WebMD so he can check it, and together you're creating a partnership... There's going to be a much deeper relationship between providers and patients going forward, particularly as providers are starting to take on financial risk for the patient’s care."

Schlanger said that through the beta test this summer 90 percent of the physicians participating told WebMD that they would use a mobile health program like this with their patients if their patients came to them and asked them for it.

"We have an opportunity to make WebMD the place where people aggregate and store this data," Schlanger said. "They already have an engagement with us, and we are now in a position to better personalize that engagement. Longer term, this gives us the opportunity to diversify out of our straight advertising and sponsorship business by getting more into connectivity relationship with the physician, which is where this data can be critical. Obviously there is still a lot of work to determine how exactly that would be put into the communication channel with the physician, and we’re not going to send the whole data feed to them. This puts [WebMD] more into the information flow and transaction flow in healthcare."

WebMD's acquisition of patient engagement platform company Avado is helping the company diversify beyond its core ad-based content model, and Schlanger said they are always on the look out for acquisition targets.

"We are always evaluating [potential acquisitions] and those may range from startups like an Avado, which was a great idea that made great progress on a technology, all the way through established businesses that really have a footprint," he said. "It is always with the notion that if you look at what we are doing and the assets that we have, can we leverage our audience and create a uniquely differentiated offering? We think there is a lot of great stuff out there, but there's not always a way to get people to use it."