Consumer health tech companies are moving increasingly into healthcare

By Jonah Comstock
05:41 pm

More and more, direct-to-consumer wearables companies are moving into business-to-business healthcare markets. It's not exactly a surprising move -- the potential for consumer technology to encourage healthier lifestyle choices is a core thesis of digital health, and one that could have big implications for healthcare as it faces a rise in chronic conditions. Nonetheless, over the course of the past year MobiHealthNews has noticed a creeping trend of the big names in consumer-facing digital health putting more resources behind their B2B programs.

Take Fitbit itself, for example. In the company's first quarter earnings call, CEO James Park wasn't shy about trumpeting the healthcare opportunity, stopping just shy of promising a regulated device.

"We are learning that lack of consumer engagement is a critical missing element in many broad healthcare efforts such as population health and disease management,” he said in May. “… Since our devices and services are already engaging, Fitbit has incredible opportunity to serve as the consumer healthcare engagement engine. I could argue that, better than anyone else, we can help people engage with their health, engage with their family’s health, engage with their insurer and employer and engage with the healthcare system.”

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And the company has already backed up those words with action. In July Fitbit announced a longstanding partnership with Fitabase, a research platform that collects data from internet-connected devices. Over the last four years, the companies have launched trials with hospitals including Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern Medicine, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the University of California San Diego. MobiHealthNews rounded up some Fitbit clinical trials based on the government's database. 

Then, just last week Fitbit hired a VP of Digital Health, and a high-profile one at that: Adam Pellegrini, who made his name bolstering digital health at Walgreens-Boots Alliance. At Fitbit, Pellegrini will be responsible for leading Fitbit’s continued integration in healthcare systems around the world.

Or take Withings, another early stalwart of the consumer health tracking space, which has signalled a big move into the hospital space following its acquisition by Nokia Technologies. Nokia Technologies announced that it would work with Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) and the University of Helsinki to develop new technologies for outpatient care, starting with remote patient monitoring solutions. Unlike Fitbit, which mostly offers fitness devices, many of Withing's devices are FDA-cleared medical devices.

Jawbone, amidst rumors and evidence that the company is circling the drain, is apparently looking to a new, clinical grade wearable to save it. In any event, the company definitely acquired a highly clinically focused company, Spectros, last year, and appointed its CEO David Benaron as its Chief Medical Officer.

The list goes on and on. iHealth Labs, the Andon Health subsidiary that makes a range of FDA-cleared connected health devices including glucometers, blood pressure monitors, weight scales, and a forthcoming EKG device, announced iHealth Connect, its enterprise health management system at HIMSS this year. The system includes iHealth Gateway, a secure hub for collecting data from various iHealth devices in the home as well as software systems for diabetes management, outpatient care, and population health.

Philips is, in a sense, moving the other way, as the company has just launched a suite of consumer-facing health devicesbut it is also building out its population health strategy, through acquisitions like Wellcentive, an Atlanta, Georgia-based population health management software company. 

Apple's ventures into healthcare have followed a progression further and further into the enterprise, getting its foot into the proverbial door with HealthKit, then ResearchKit, and finally CareKit, while at the same time tackling enterprise healthcare directly through its partnership with IBM. Now rumor has it that the company is working on a totally new healthcare-focused device. 

Apple's progression from HealthKit to CareKit actually bears closer examination as a microcosm for how all these companies might be hoping this goes. First, they released the Health app and HealthKit, which, while they had the capability to integrate with hospital systems' EHRs from the start, were pitched to consumers as a easier way to aggregate all their fitness and health tracking data from devices and apps.

Then ResearchKit built on HealthKit's capabilities and existing userbase, and brought that data into hospitals, but did so in the clinical research space, where regulation is lighter in some ways and the technology isn't life or death for patients. Apple itself told us as much.

“One way to think about ResearchKit is as the beginning of a pipeline that will lead to more apps that are screening, diagnostic, management and treatment apps,” Bud Tribble, MD, PhD, Vice President of Software Technology at Apple told MobiHealthNews last fall. "In fact, it is a necessary, essential first step to figure out what is needed to develop these apps -- what works and what doesn’t -- before you move into, ultimately, clinical study apps and clearance to use them for diagnosis and treatment.”

This is the stage Fitbit is at right now, as evidenced by its many clinical trials with Fitabase. Ultimately though, ResearchKit paved the way for CareKit, the company's most recent healthcare launch. It didn't take long at all for Apple to get from consumer tool to consumer-facing hospital tool, working with an impressive lineup of hospitals like University of Rochester Medical Center, UCSF, Stanford Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Emory Healthcare, and the Cleveland Clinic.

Healthcare has always been a big business, and as Fitbit's James Park said, it's an increasingly consumerized one. Hospitals are thinking more and more about patient experience. What better place to turn than devices and apps that have already proven themselves engaging and delightful in the direct-to-consumer world?


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