For mobile health, what's old is new again

By Brian Dolan
01:52 am
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Kenneth SeymensBack in the 1990s, Kenneth Seymens was the senior manager of Apple's Medical Informatics Group. Seymens directed an initiative at Apple that developed native Macintosh clients for health IT systems. His team partnered with 120 medical schools to develop the medical apps for Macs, but they soon migrated their efforts over to Apple's first handheld device, the ill-fated Newton, a personal digital assistant that held great promise for point of care applications.

"Of course, Apple eventually stepped back from the Newton," Seymens told MobiHealthNews in an interview. "Honestly, it was premature at that time. What we were doing was very disruptive for physician workflow. Compare that to today: Smartphone adoption among healthcare practitioners, including Apple's iPhone, is extremely strong."

At Apple, one of Seymens projects included distributing Newtons to public health workers in India -- similar to some of the work NGOs are doing in developing markets today. The healthworkers drove around on Vespas to various villages to record health information, Seymens said. That was almost 20 years ago.

"Really, this [mobile health space] hasn't fundamentally changed all that much," Seymens said. "Sure, the technology is better and faster. Yes, wireless is going to move it all forward, especially in the developing world because many of those markets don't have existing infrastructure. No one is laying cable in the desert, for example."

Seymens is a believer in the concept of deploying mobile health solutions in developing markets and once their efficacy is proven, bringing them back to the US.

Seymens left Apple in the late 1990's to found a startup along with a few Apple Newton engineers. The startup was called JustUs Communications, which focused on creating medical apps for the Apple Newton among other devices. Again, Seymens said, JustUs was ahead of its time and it eventually ran out of gas... and its Angel funding.

"Again, trying to change practice patterns for physicians is no small task," Seymens said.

Soon after Seymen joined the American Hospital Association as its first Chief Information Officer and stayed on for a few years. After one too many challenges to his business acumen, Seymens said he went to Northwestern's Kellogg School of Business to get an MBA. Seymens then joined an investment bank and headed up the firm's healthcare technology practice and worked on capital raises, consolidations and the like.

Seymens then served as president and CEO of a medical device company that retrofitted personal health devices, including pulse oximeters, weight scales, blood glucose meters and more with wireless chips. The devices could then communicate with a local hub and transmit information to secure portals where healthcare providers could analyze it and make recommendations to the patient.

Currently, Seymens is a Venture Partner at Vesalius Ventures.

"I sit at that sweet spot between healthcare informatics, telecommunications and medical devices," Seymens said. "I'm still looking very opportunistically at venture opportunities in mHealth or telehealth, but it's a tough market for investors to get their arms around. There are not too many private equity or venture capital plays in this space. It's very boutique-oriented with lots of one-sy, two-sy deployments. Too many proof of concept companies and no major wins yet."

"It's interesting that [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates is going to speak about mobile health at the FNIH mHealth Summit," Seymens said. "He did the same thing at the HIMSS conference in San Antonio 20 years ago. He said then that Microsoft would be the platform of choice for HIT. Surprisingly, that didn't really push the industry as far along as we thought it would, but that same kind of momentum is happening again."

Seymens said that mobile health won't really take off until the telcos of the world -- the AT&Ts, Verizons and Vodafones really start implementing mobile health services. Mobile operators already have the infrastructure in place, the billing in place and a captive audience, Seymens said. The mobile operators can sit back and watch the mobile health pioneers and treat them as stalking horses. When they decide the market is ready, mobile operators can work with the managed care organizations to launch mobile health services developed on the backs of the early startups.

"AT&T is snooping around and looking at a lot of eHealth providers and solutions. Some of the large computer makers like Dell and Hewlett Packarg are clearly looking to create solutions," Seymens said. "At end of day the equipment just needs to get to [a pricepoint] under $100 with monthly subscription rates in the $15 range. That's when you can get people with chronic conditions as well as the 'worried well' to sign up."

About 15 years ago, Seymens said he spoke at a conference in San Diego focused on telemedicine and organized by the state of Utah for governors of western states in the US. His topic? Medical bandaids. Oak Ridge National Laboratory created medical bandaid technology similar to the ones offered by firms like Corventis, Seymens said.

"A few days ago [National Public Radio] ran a report that made a lot of hoopla out of this wireless bandaid that had sensors that collected patients' vital signs," Seymens explained. "A similar technology was created almost 20 years ago in Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee. It was used by the military. They put sensors on bandaids or on dogtags and utilized them for military battlefield triage. It helped medics determine which soldiers were viable enough to assist which ones should be left alone."

Seymens said he thinks the mobile health industry really deserves some admonishment. While there is a new wave of individuals interested in this space today, they are covering the same ground the industry covered 10 to 12 years ago.

And there's not yet a lot of traction.

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