The Year of the Health Gadget


Lt. Dan posted a good preview article of CES earlier this week. As the Lieutenant mentioned, the Digital Health Summit is a growing part of CES and will feature lots of startups with health gadgets and apps, especially for health and fitness. Sponsors of the Summit include familiar names like Independa, Sharecare, Continua, IDEAL LIFE, Qualcomm, Telcare, United, and Jiff.

So I stole the title for this post from TechCrunch. The article discusses the evolution of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) from a showcase of the big players (Microsoft, Dell, etc) to a showcase of hardware or gadget startups. The article certainly makes CES seem like a show worth attending this year. Gadgets are lots of fun, so I agree it would be a fun show. Unfortunately I won’t be there, but I’d love to hear from anybody attending CES and especially the Digital Health Summit.

In many ways, 2012 was the year of the health gadget. New devices and approvals from Nike, Fitbit, Telcare, Adidas, AliveCor, Lark, Jawbone, Withings and a host of others for everything from weight to activity to sleep to blood pressure to glucose to heart rhythm. And then there’s the Kickstarter story of the year Pebble Watch and its connectivity to Runkeeper. I even wrote about all the devices I gave out to family for Christmas. For gadget fans, there is an explosive rate of growth right now.

For fans of health and wellness, that explosive growth is exciting. Gadgets have a ton of potential in health, especially for things like passive and convenient (read: anywhere) monitoring. Take my dad and mom as examples. I’ve tried iPhone apps for entering and documenting glucose readings in the hopes of getting my dad to use them on his phone, but after the very painful experience of helping my dad install the iBGStar app and get it working, I realized that an app is not the answer.

My mom has been trying to get more active, not just run or walk, but be generally more active. She has never used an app (she has an iPhone) to log or motivate herself, but absolutely loves her FuelBand because it tracks things effortlessly and gives her a constant sense of how active she’s being that day.

And what’s great is that not all devices even require a smartphone. The Fuelband can be used with your computer. Both Withings and Fitbit went to WiFi over bluetooth for their connected scales, so no phone is necessary. I’m betting they also made the move away from Bluetooth because it can be a bit testy with smartphones, at least every Bluetooth device I’ve ever used has been.

Despite the incredible growth of smartphones that will continue in 2013 and beyond, smartphone user does not necessarily equal power user or app user, especially if you’re targeting populations over the age of 40. I’m reminded of that every time I I’m with my parents or in-laws, all of whom have iPhones and none of whom really use third-party apps.

I’m excited to see what new health and wellness apps are showcased at CES because I think these devices have the potential to play a major role in addressing some major health issues in our society. With the dropping cost of hardware (am I the only one excited about the Raspberry Pi?), reductions in size of sensors, and improving battery options, it’s clear that technology is not the problem, something I devoted a post to last summer. Unfortunately as technology has continued to innovate, the barriers to adoption (licensing, reimbursement, evidence) for who need it most have not been resolved.

Aside from those barriers, the other major area that needs to be addressed is data connectivity. With an explosion of devices comes an explosion of data, and unfortunately, probably an explosion of data silos. Everybody is talking about this right now so I won’t belabor the point, but as more devices get built and hopefully actually get used (see next paragraph), there are going to be increasingly urgent questions about standards and data portability. It will be interesting to see how players in healthcare and health gadget makers, along with some other groups, try to sort this out.

One last barrier (or big questions) will be adoption and sales. There’s a long and interesting comment on my Christmas post that lays out a lot of the reasons why connected health is a sales problem and not a technology or product problem. Cool devices are great and I bet I’ll have a few more by the end of 2013, but will people who really need to track weight, activity, sleep, blood pressure, and glucose actually be using these devices? I still believe the keys to success lie in gadget companies working with healthcare groups, especially healthcare delivery groups.

There is a lot to look forward to and a lot to think about with CES 2013. If you hear about something particularly exciting at CES, I’d love to hear about it.

Travis Good is an MD/MBA involved with health IT startups. More about me.

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