In-Depth: Looking back at 10 years of digital health coverage

As MobiHealthNews turns 10, we've chosen an article from each year to tell a small piece of our story, and the story of digital health.
By Jonah Comstock
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Photo by Betsie Van der Meer (Getty).

In 2009, the iPhone was a year and a half old. The iPad was just a rumor. The Apple Watch wasn’t even that. There was no such thing as a Fitbit. CMS didn’t have an innovation center and the FDA didn’t have any guidelines about apps. Telemedicine had been around for a while, but it was something that involved bulky carts. No one thought that Apple, Google, or Amazon would ever be thought of as a healthcare company.

That was the world that MobiHealthNews launched into on January 31, 2009. Yesterday, the publication celebrated its 10th anniversary and we’re taking the opportunity, via our 1000+ pages of archives to look back at those 10 years and how not only MobiHealthNews, but the whole world of digital health has changed.

In the beginning, MobiHealthNews was a two-person startup publishing a weekly newsletter. In 2019, MobiHealthNews is a part of a large international team at HIMSS Media. We publish a daily global edition of our newsletter and a biweekly European edition, with more global launches to come. We’ve come a long way and we’ve done it all with the help of innumerable loyal readers and supporters — a growing number of people who have seen, as Brian Dolan and Joe Maillie did in 2009, the enormous potential of digital technology to transform healthcare and save lives.

So to all our readers, thanks for coming along on this journey, however long you’ve been here. We’re excited to see how this space evolves over the next 10 years.

Read on below for 10 stories from the 10 years we’ve been covering the space, a combination of the work we’re proudest of and some of the most illustrative developments in the world of digital health. Of course, with only so much space, we’re sure we missed a 100 important events and developments, but we've tried to highlight a variety of historical threads.

 

2009: Qualcomm pulls the plug on LifeComm

Reading through the archives of MobiHealthNews in 2009, you see a slew of questions and predictions as headlines that seem obvious to a modern eye: “FDA may regulate iPhone Health Apps”, “Should 'Meaningful use' include connected devices?”, “Prediction: Smartphones to replace pagers in hospitals”.

A lot of the news content revolved around text message-based initiatives, nonmobile PHR efforts like Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault, occasional product launches (GlowCap and Fitbit among the notables), and even less frequent funding rounds (MobiHealthNews tracked 15 total in 2009).

We picked this story because MobiHealthNews founder and former Editor in Chief Brian Dolan considers it the publication’s first scoop. But it also stands as a good snapshot of the early years of digital health, and a theme we’ve seen repeated many times: An over-ambitious project from a large company falling apart, this time due to insufficient interest from potential funders.

“LifeComm planned to sell mobile phones equipped with health management applications along with service plans to support the devices,” Dolan wrote at the time. “The company's overall goal was to equip the wave of 70 million Baby Boomers that were poised to overwhelm the U.S. healthcare system's already strained medical resources with wireless-enabled tools to help them better manage their own health and fitness.”

Not a bad idea — in fact arguably the same goal Apple is moving towards with its ECG and fall-preventing Watch.

 

2010: FDA clears WellDoc for diabetes management

In 2010, we were tracking the explosive proliferation of medical iPhone apps. Epic’s Haiku launched that year. Aetna and Humana launched early apps. Fitness app Runkeeper hit 2 million users.

But when it came to medical apps and devices, the FDA remained something of an unknown roadblock for many innovators. So the industry as a whole exhaled when some apps like AirStrip’s remote patient monitoring app and WellDoc’s diabetes management app started to get clearances. (Proteus Biomedical, now Proteus Digital Health, also got its first clearance in 2010.)

We singled out WellDoc here because the company was in the early wave of a lot of health trends. Its system for diabetes management was one of the first mobile health systems to go through a randomized control trial and would later be one of the first apps to be prescribable and reimbursable.

Other notable 2010 news: The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation was created, the iPad launched, and WebMD founder Jeff Arnold launched Sharecare at Health 2.0.

 

2011: 10 Reasons why Google Health failed

2011 was another year of firsts in digital health: The FDA drafted its first mobile medical app regulations, Pfizer launched the first mobile clinical trial, Rock Health, StartUp Health, and HealthBox all hit the scene in the first wave of digital health accelerators, the FTC went after two medical apps, and IBM’s Watson, which would soon head to hospitals, bested Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!

With all of these milestones to choose from, why focus on the death of Google Health? Throughout the years at MobiHealthNews one of the things we’ve prided ourselves on is the investigation of failures, because they offer such important learning opportunities to the companies that come after. That’s why we’ve invited companies like Zeo and Healthrageous to write “post-mortems” on the site.

For Google Health, we threw that opportunity open to the whole digital health community, and you really delivered, and the lessons in this post are still relevant for launching a digital health enterprise today.

Meanwhile, the PHR dream has continued to be one of the trickiest innovation spaces in healthcare. New attempts like Apple Health Records and Ciitizen seem promising, but we’re still waiting for a definitive success in the category.

 

2012: KP's patient-facing Android EMR app has 100K downloads, launches iOS version

The heart of MobiHealthNews’s mission is to cover not just digital technology in healthcare, but the way that technology enables the consumerization of healthcare. While we were covering all kinds of apps for doctors in the first few years of the publication, it was in 2012 that we started to see patient-facing apps gain some real traction. Kaiser was one of the health systems leading the charge, we saw Mayo Clinic follow suit shortly thereafter.

Outside of the provider world, in 2012 we saw a lot of exciting action in the world of fitness trackers, with Jawbone re-launching UP, Misfit launching Shine, and BodyMedia’s wearable getting primetime treatment on The Biggest Loser.

This year also saw important FDA clearances for Propeller Health (then Asthmapolis), AliveCor and Proteus, as well as the launch of Omada Health and the Tricorder X Prize.

 

2013: Scanadu to crowdfund its tricorder device pre-FDA clearance

The story of Scanadu says a lot about digital health in 2013. For one thing, digital health crowdfunding exploded on platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, to the point where we started posting regular roundups of crowdfunded devices which continued for some time. Scanadu was a big one, ultimately raising more than 10 times its funding goal at $1.37 million and becoming the most-funded project ever for a short time. Clearly, people were eager to take their health into their own hands.

But it’s also a story of the industry’s evolving relationship with the FDA. Scanadu pushed boundaries by trying to sell a device ahead of FDA clearance by making their backers participants in a research study. The gambit worked — sort of. The company never got sanctioned by the agency, but they did have to brick buyers’ devices at the end of the trial, something which left a bad taste in consumers’ mouths, to put it mildly. And to make matters worse, the Scout never hit the market — the company, now Inui health, is focused instead on urinalysis for the moment.

So much more happened in 2013: High profile acquisitions like Jawbone acquiring BodyMedia, Qualcomm acquiring HealthyCircles, Humana acquiring Healthrageous, and Under Armor buying MapMyFitness for $150 million — more on that later.

 

2014: In-Depth: How patient generated health data is evolving into one of healthcare's biggest trends

MobiHealthNews did well on scoops in 2014. We were the first to uncover the shutdown of Aetna’s CarePass platform, now a distant memory but once one of the most promising platform plays in digital health. We made some strong speculations about the Apple Watch well before its launch and dug into trends like Google Glass in healthcare and the growing use of activity trackers in clinical settings.

But it was also the year we started to introduce our Friday In-Depths, taking the opportunity to cover not just the breaking news of the space but the emerging trends and analysis. Patient-generated health data, in all its forms, is one of the most important transformative trends in digital health, so we’ve chosen to highlight this in-depth, in which we spoke with Partners Health’s Dr. Joseph Kvedar, Scripps Health’s Dr. Steven Steinhubl, and PwC analyst (at the time) Chris Wasden.

The topic would take on extra relevance soon, as Apple launched the HealthKit, the patient data infrastructure that would form the basis for ResearchKit, CareKit, and Apple Health Records in the years to come.

The story highlighted both the enormous potential and the formidable challenges of patient-generated health data, a topic that’s come a long way in five years but still has a long way to go.

 

2015: In-Depth: Under Armour's fitness app acquisition spree

2015 brought was a huge year for digital health. Fitbit and Teladoc went public. Apple launched ResearchKit. The White House launched the Precision Medicine Initiative. 23andMe relaunched after an FDA-mandated hiatus. Well known consumer brands like Uber, Warby Parker, and Weight Watchers got interested in digital health. Jawbone and Fitbit sued each other a lot.

But some of the biggest news of 2015 had to do with M&A (perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the year that we got acquired and joined the HIMSS Media family).

A lot of the M&A money spent in 2015 was spent on fitness apps as apparel companies raced to buy the startups that were leading the space. Under Armour saw the opportunity first and spent $700 million to buy MapMyFitness (in 2014), MyFitnessPal, and Endomondo. As the year went on, Adidas would follow suit with its $240 million Runtastic acquisition and Fossil with its $260 million Misfit acquisition. ASICS snapped up Runkeeper for $85 million early in 2016.

Before any of that, we went deep on the Under Armour deal, digging into the reasons for the sale, Under Armour’s vision and competitors’ worries.

It’s interesting to look back on that mad scramble now, because it’s hard to say whether it turned out to be worth it for Under Armour. Just two years later, the company began to de-emphasize its Connected Fitness strategy.

 

2016: Scoop: Emails between Apple and FDA hint at future plans

This was always going to be an obvious choice for 2016 since it remains MobiHealthNews’s biggest scoop ever. A lucky FOIA request of emails exchanged between Apple and the FDA gave us a window into the secretive company and its big medical device plans, which finally came to fruition last year with Apple’s announcement of the Apple Watch’s FDA-cleared EKG feature — though we’re still waiting for that Parkinson’s device.

In the larger digital health world, we saw Nokia acquire Withings in an ill-fated feint into connected health, Dexcom’s CGM gain an unprecedented FDA clearance for use without a fingerstick glucometer, a lot of patent fights that didn’t work out, and Pokémon Go, which we deemed “the fastest-growing unintentional health app.” (Say what you will, it got a lot of people moving).

It was the year of Dr. James Madara’s infamous “digital health snake oil” speech. And it was a landmark year for consumer genomics.

 

2017: In-Depth: What Texas's landmark telemedicine legislation means for the industry and the nation

One of the joys of covering a space for 10 years is the ability to cover developing stories that can span years. In 2017, we closed the door on a couple of those threads: The Tricorder X Prize, which we had been covering since 2011, finally had a winner, and Teladoc’s high-stakes standoff with the Texas Medical Board, which had been developing since 2015. The case was an anti-trust case, with Teladoc arguing that rules against telemedicine — put in place by a state medical board made up of practicing clinicians with a financial interest in restricting telemedicine — constituted an antitrust violation. The case could have gone all the way up to the Supreme Court, but instead was resolved by way of new legislation.

The legal particulars were interesting, but the importance of the ultimate resolution was that it opened the doors for telemedicine companies to finally pursue 50-state strategies. In that way, it was the conclusion of a much longer thread: D2C telemedicine’s battle for regulatory legitimacy. This newsy In-Depth covered all that, and also gave a peak into how the sausage was made.

What else happened in 2017? A lot. Verily kicked off its Project Baseline study. Apple acquired Beddit and launched the Apple Heart study. The Outcome Health scandal broke. And the FDA, under the new leadership of Scott Gottlieb, began its ambitious Pre-Cert program.

 

2018: Blockchain: What's the hype, what's the promise?

We just finished 2018, and it’s too early to say what stories from that year are going to turn out to be the most important. Amazon’s acquisition of PillPack, Novartis’s development deal with Pear Therapeutics, Apple’s launching of both Health Records and the aforementioned ECG feature, CMS reimbursing for remote monitoring — all of these could turn out to be pivotal moments for the space.

But 2018 has been a year of change for MobiHealthNews. We went global with our Europe edition, added video content from HIMSS TV, added templates to make our stories more digestible and, with our sister publications Healthcare IT News and Healthcare Finance News, added monthly focus topics which we’ve gone deep on.

Laura Lovett’s piece on blockchain in healthcare, and the many other blockchain pieces we published as we asked around about the possibilities for the technology, are an example of the kind of contributions to the larger conversations in healthcare we’re hoping to make with this new strategy.

Also, blockchain was a pretty hot topic in 2018. Whether it turned out to be more hype than substance is a question that’s still resolving. There’s always something new in digital health and we hope we’ll always be here to help you unpack it.