2010: Operators, payers finally interested in mHealth

By Brian Dolan
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leadership-donald-jonesThis past week I served as co-chair of the second annual Mobile Healthcare Industry Summit in London. Fresh off a red-eye flight into London Tuesday morning, I joined Qualcomm’s Vice President of Healthcare Don Jones on-stage to conduct a one-on-one interview for the more than 100 attendees present. Jones outlined a number of strategies for mobile health startups, batted away a number of oft-cited challenges for the mobile health industry and offered an insider's perspective into how the key stakeholders of wireless health view the opportunities today.

BD: This morning's discussion is focused on whether 2010 is "The year of mobile health".  Don, you and I were talking earlier: "Mobile health" is not a term that Qualcomm uses. Why is that?

DJ: Well, we use the term "wireless health" for a couple of reasons. One, is that we sell wireless technologies. So, it’s rather direct from that perspective. But the other thing I like to say is that "not all mobile health is wireless" and "not all wireless health is mobile". A lot of the opportunities that we see using cellular technology actually don’t require that the end-user device actually be mobile itself. So, if you think about all the different kinds of radio technologies that are involved in our industry—ultra low power radios, WiFi, personal body area network technologies, and then moving up through to the wireless wide area radio technologies—there’s just a lot of different technologies in that arena and when you look at the use cases there may or may not be a mobility issue. The mobility issue may be, for example, "How do we ship a product into somebody’s home?" That may be the mobile part. And once it’s in the home it may no longer be mobile.

BDD: The semantic issue is one we run into all the time. It can be confusing. I think your explanation is helpful.

Don, you joined Qualcomm at the end of 2002 and shortly thereafter was when Qualcomm inked a deal with CardioNet, which is still, to my knowledge, the only true pure-play wireless health public company out there today. That deal was back in 2003. Then, in 2005 you helped co-found the Wireless Life Sciences Alliance. That was about five years ago. Early last year, about a year and a half ago, you were integral to the founding of the West Wireless Health Institute in San Diego, in the US. Those are each big milestones from the past seven years. Getting back to this discussion as to whether 2010 is the year of wireless health, I'm curious: What’s really changed in the last 1.5 years, five years, seven years -- take your pick of the time frame. Any clear trend?

DJ: What was absolutely key in the last year and a half was that the mobile operator community began to raise their hands and ask: How do we play? Frankly, that wasn't happening much earlier than that. There certainly were pilot examples involving mobile operators around the world, but operators weren't saying: "We can make a difference in this space." "We can make a business in this space." It's clear now that operators (as we saw in an earlier presentation by Thierry Zylberbery from Orange) are going to form part of a new distribution channel for some of the important developments in the healthcare. It's an important distribution channel and one that brings economies of scale and devices.

It’s also something that the medical device industry is only barely beginning to wake up to -- the fact that there is a whole new distribution channel open to them and one that has appropriate scale attached to it.

BD: The presentation given earlier by Orange was very impressive, and from my experience anyway, not the type of approach I have seen from US mobile operators. Is it fair to say that mobile operators outside the US have made more strides than those in the States?

DJ: I think that operators around the world have historically struggled with what role they should play in the healthcare value chain. Some of the carriers don’t want to miss the next big opportunity. They don’t want to miss being the AppStore for healthcare. But they don’t know exactly where they fit in the healthcare space. One area where I think they may fit: We’re seeing some operators move into healthcare by operating PAC systems (picture archival communications systems) for hospital and health systems. These operators are in a good position to disrupt the current model. We’re now starting to see virtual or cloud based systems for picture distribution. It’s a classic model and it fits very naturally with the telco infrastructure. They can allow a hospital to afford purchasing a service on an ASP model as opposed to spending millions and millions of dollars in hardware costs. So, that’s an interesting angle from an operator perspective that can scale very large. Then, all of the sudden physicians and other health care professionals will be able to get the images they need on the devices they want. Whether that’s to a desktop or to a proprietary display system or to an iPad or a smartphone. Those all become possible. Even across an entire region -- an entire country. So that’s a very interesting big dollar play where operators could move up on the value chain quite nicely.