Revisiting the Hype of Mobile Health

The mHealth Summit last week serves as a good barometer of mobile health, even though it’s having an identity crisis. I’ve been thinking about phases and stages. Where is mobile health being held up? In what stage is it stuck?

Rick Valencia, VP/GM of Qualcomm Life, talked about waves for mobile health in his keynote at the Summit. The waves he laid out were 1) mobilize, 2) organize, 3) insight, and 4) behavior change. Those waves are in reference to the data being generated by connected health apps and devices. Those waves are perfectly logical. I think some motivated early adopters are already experiencing all of the waves. People who are independent of providers and reimbursement and all the other complexities in healthcare are quantifying themselves and using that data as a starting point to make healthier behavior.

But with those waves and with mobile health, the problem we have is scaling the onboarding process. We don’t have the people in most need of behavior change (Wave 4) mobilizing their data (Wave 1). It’s an adoption issue, not a technology issue. And you can’t progress to behavior change before you have adoption, even if that’s adoption of passive technology like worn sensors and apps.

We’re stuck trying to figure out how to get people on the spectrum and start mobilizing data or to start adopting new tools. Once that happens, companies will clamor to organize and drive users towards changing behaviors.

Gartner uses the technology hype cycle to assess market segments. Steve Cashman, CEO of HealthSpot, mentioned the hype cycle and healthcare a few weeks ago in an interview on this site. Steve puts healthcare in the trough of disillusionment. Presumably he was referring to new models of care delivery and new technologies to power those models, like the ones that HealthSpot is selling. His comparison to MP3 players and the first iPod is a good one. He’s right that it’s not a technology issue, it’s a regulatory and adoption issue.


Not surprisingly, the 2013 Gartner report Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies lists "mobile health monitoring" as moving from peak of hype to the trough of disillusionment. The image from the report is included above, with more technologies than mobile health listed. The other major overhyped trends in healthcare are also on the image — big data and cloud computing. Being on the hype cycle and being overhyped isn’t a bad thing and doesn’t mean these technologies won’t be disruptive — it just means they still have some time before they reach widespread adoption. Gartner is predicting that mobile health is 5-10 years from reaching widespread scale.

I don’t think the first spectrum — the waves of mobile health data usage that Rick Valencia presented at the Summit — is relevant because it doesn’t reflect where we are today. Most t people in the industry think the traditional hype cycle stage and projections by Gartner are right. It’s hard to argue that it doesn’t fit very well. Mobile health is overhyped and people are starting to question that hype. But most people also believe that connected technologies will reshape healthcare data and delivery. Since it’s a matter of time, it’s logical to put it in the trough of disillusionment.

I also saw pieces of an interview with Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures this week. The interview wasn’t about healthcare or about mobile health, or even about replacing 80 percent of doctors with computers, which is a favorite prediction of Khosla. At the end of the interview, Rabois comments on the hype cycle and which segments of technology are overhyped. What’s interesting is that he states that mobile as a platform is still under-hyped despite all the attention and investment.

His belief is that mobile is a fundamental shift in how we interact with the world and we’re really still figuring out what it can do. Rabois uses Uber as the first example of consumer mobile devices being used a remote control for the world. He says many others have followed, with more to come that we haven’t even though of yet.

It’s interesting to consider that maybe we are just scratching the service of mobile. In healthcare, the data that’s collected via mobile (apps or connected devices) is exceptionally valuable, and in time will be more valuable and actionable than what we think of today as the medical record. But we still need to solve the adoption issues there.

12-18-2013 10-02-49 AM

The other side of mobile health, the one that Rabois is referring to, is already happening. A company I’ve been a big fan of for years is empowering patients to control aspects of the real world, specific to healthcare. The company is Zipnosis and provides consumers with $29 asynchronous virtual visits. Consumers can use web or mobile to "see" a doctor and get treatment, prescriptions included. Doctors on Demand just raised money to do something similar.

You can see a natural progression from this model to an actual doctor (or PA or NP) doing an in-person house call or office visit. I swear I just read about a startup offering house calls on demand, but maybe I’m mixing it up with the Doctors on Demand funding announcement. A simpler expansion would be same-day delivery of prescriptions, specific needed medical services (including DME), or over-the-counter treatments. It’s mobile acting as a remote control for the world. When these services scale, they’ll have very valuable, up-to-date information about healthcare trends.

Maybe I’m talking myself out of thinking mobile health is overhyped and wondering if we’re just banging our heads against the same quantified self wall and care coordination wall we’ve seen in the past few years. Maybe we just need to broaden how we think about mobile health in general. Services like Zipnosis take time to reach scale and tip for consumers, but, maybe we’re just scratching the service on what’s possible and aren’t overhyped yet.

Regardless of stage in the hype cycle, the horizon for mobile health scale is still a ways off, but the potential is still very much there. Increasingly my impatience gets the better of me as we wait each year to hit that tipping point. Hopefully we’ll see more of these remote control tools — tools that empower consumers in regards to healthcare services and goods — emerge and get attention at the mHealth Summit.



Travis Good is an MD/MBA and co-founder of Catalyze. More about me.

  • Matthew Holt

    Start with the wrong name, end up with the wrong conclusion

  • So, from that picture, no over-hyped things ever fail to reach the plateau if we wait long enough?

  • Cynthia Porter

    Wanted to share my observations at mHealth show last week from President of a healthcare Research company perspective.

  • travisjgood

    Thanks Margalit! I don’t think this cycle has the same peaks and troughs for everything. It’s more about the pattern. And no, I don’t think all over-hyped things reach the plateau. Look at the segway as an example.

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