What is the carrier's role in wireless health?

By Brian Dolan

In Las Vegas last week at MobiHealthNews Presents: Everywhere Healthcare, our co-located event at CTIA Wireless, I hosted a panel that included representatives from Vodafone, AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Jitterbug. The topic: What is the role for wireless carriers in mHealth. The answers were varied but with only one exception they honed in on one conclusion: Carriers will not be selling branded health services and they don't plan on stocking their retail locations with health products any time soon.

So what is the opportunity in healthcare according to carriers? How do they see their own companies fitting in?

Improving access to data for clinicians

"I sit on the enterprise side of AT&T so we are trying to figure out that part of the healthcare market," said Tammi DeVore, Senior Healthcare Manager at AT&T. "I see the first opportunity as access to health data -- everyone is trying to get to that data. So, how do we help that clinician move relevant data into the EMR? How can we help that physician who goes to a retail store and buys his device, brings it to his hospital and expexts to be able to view lab results, communicate with the staff and work whether he is at home or in the office. There is a real opportunity for us to bring together an ecosystem of players to make that work."

Actively seeking out device companies that might want wireless embedded

"Verizon has addressed healthcare in a number of ways, but one has been to work with healthcare companies to embed modules or provide dongles to bring connectivity to their devices," said Steve Linke, Associate Director of the Open Development Group at Verizon Wireless. "That's been ongoing for years and there hasn't been a lot of noise about it. Now, with the Open Development Group, Verizon has a more active approach to finding and meeting with companies like BL Healthcare, Medapps and many others. We see ourselves as an enabler that can help to bring about new business models and device opportunities for healthcare."

Vodafone sees health as a BtoBtoC play

"Vodafone has more than 6,000 shops around the world. We have a reputation for connectivity services. It would seem strange for us to suddenly begin selling healthcare services," said Joaquim Croca, Vodafone Group's new head of health solutions. "I don't believe consumers would just go with the flow and buy Vodafone branded home healthcare solutions. To be able to sell services you need to have the right reputation, we do not have the reputation for selling health services and we don't want to build that reputation. We will work with others to help them take on that role and bring wireless to healthcare."

Jitterbug bucks the trend: Goes direct to consumer with health services

"We are really focused on the consumer and not so much the data," said GreatCall/Jitterbug CEO David Inns. "We are not focused on the more complicated sensors or remote monitoring, but on the other end of the spectrum: preventative applications. The latest one we launched this week is called Wellness Calls. This service focuses on stress, lack of sleep and other wellness issues. Subscribers to the service get one outbound call once a week for five minutes that includes wellness tips. As consumers are getting this call with relaxation techniques and when they should use it, we are asking them if they are feeling relaxed or somewhere in between so we, a healthcare provider or a member of their family can track their wellness over time on something we call a wellness index. What we have seen clinically proven recently and over and over is that the state of mind is probably one of the leading indicators of future physical ailments."

"And, yes, we do absolutely put our brand behind our health services," Inns continued. "We think that service is a big part of this – if you don't have that service element – we are not a healthcare company but everything we do is developed by healthcare people. We are bringing our customer service platform to it. If you have problems, you can call us. It's all on one bill and one website where you can manage your entire health app portfolio and know that there is a customer service rep that you can go to if you have a question."

Would a customer want to buy a Verizon branded glucometer?

"Everyday I meet with a partner and regardless of vertical or device they ask: How do I get in your store? Well, we only have so much room. We have to sell the devices that are branded as Verizon products. Will a customer want to buy a branded glucometer from Verizon Wireless? That doesn't make sense," Linke said. "Are we willing to put in the systems, like Jitterbug has done, to have a dedicated customer service centered on the healthcare space? We need to focus on what we do best, which is serving a network. We have retail distribution to provide our branded devices, which we believe are best for our customers. My organization in Open Development aims to help everyone else who believes they are the right device for their space."

Is Jitterbug the exception?

As the carriers each stress in their own way above, their focus is on managing their network and enabling partners and potential partners to mobilize their offerings. While Jitterbug is the lone exception is may be because Jitterbug does not have it's own network to manage -- it uses Verizon Wireless' network to run its mobile phone service. As a result, perhaps Jitterbug has more resources to devote to customer service for health services and others. In the end, Jitterbug falls into Croca's characterization of healthcare as a BtoBtoC play for carriers: In Jitterbug's case it's Verizon Wireless to Jitterbug to the end users.

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