Data-driven diagnosis: The proliferation of mobile healthcare (Mhealth) delivery using advanced information technology

June 19, 2017

This is the first article in our series on the market dynamics of data-driven healthcare products and services in the United States. Our next article will examine obstacles facing MHealth applications and products and possible paths to wider adoption.

Patients suffering from chronic diseases have more options than ever for managing their conditions with the plethora of MHealth (mobile healthcare) apps and devices for self-care and diagnosis coming to market. Half of all adults in the United States suffered from one or more chronic diseases in 2012, according to the Center for Disease Control, making chronic care one of the larger segments for the medical device industry. Within the larger market of devices for chronic care, the self-care and diagnosis device segment is set for strong growth over the long term due to number of macro factors: healthcare policy changes incentivizing more efficient, outcome-based care and advancing information technology spurring new innovation.

In the United States, the transition from an incentive system based on volume of care delivered to one centered on patient outcomes give is forcing healthcare providers to take another look at their care delivery models. The focus is now on getting the right patient outcome as efficiently as possible. No longer are chronic care providers incentivized to schedule regular on-site tests and appointments with professionals when a cheaper option, such as a remotely monitored device or systems, can deliver equal outcomes for patients. This move toward more efficient models is especially true for chronic care, where the ongoing nature of chronic ailments means that small efficiency gains in the care model can add up to substantial cost savings over time.

New models for diagnosis and continuous care of chronic diseases are also being enabled by the rapid advancement of technology. MHealth apps and smart phone-linked devices in the healthcare space are flying off drawing boards and into prototypes at lightning speed. Medical device manufacturers are increasingly leveraging the digital savvy of technology industry giants such as Google and IBM to collaborate on new self-care MHealth systems that combine internet connected medical devices to apps, creating a new category of Internet of Things (IoT) systems for self-care/diagnosis of chronic ailments. Another important driver of this trend is that IoT-enabled devices are now taking smaller and smaller forms. In addition to wearables such as the Apple Watch, there are also possibilities for medical device manufacturers to develop implantable or ingestible devices to monitor a wider variety of chronic conditions where only on-site visits or tests were feasible before. These new possibilities to leverage IoT-enabled devices in new ways to monitor chronic diseases of all types presents a tremendous opportunity for medical device manufacturers as well as information technology companies to deliver value to patients and healthcare customers.

Since MHealth systems must collate different types of information from devices and other sources to provide useful insight to patients and caregivers, they may rely on either external analysis (at a healthcare facility) or at-home analysis (smartphone or home computer), depending on the complexity of the data and analysis required. Both types of systems are now being used more frequently to care for chronic ailments. The emergence of home-based systems with external analysis  will significantly reduce the cost of caring for chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis by reducing the number of office visits patients must make. One innovative example of what a home-based system with external analysis may look like comes from IBM and Pfizer. These firms are conducting joint research on a system of IoT-enabled devices which monitors patients in their own homes with a collection of sensors and cameras that feed data into an external system. The system analyzes movements and behaviors for signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, giving crucial insight into a patient’s condition without the need for extensive on-site tests. In a similar initiative, Microsoft and Novartis are working on a project to utilize Microsoft’s Kinect camera technology to diagnose multiple sclerosis.

Another emerging segment of products in the MHealth universe are those designed for home use with at-home analysis. The smartwatch is merely glimpses of what is to come in this space. This category is growing quickly to encompass products and services that go beyond the much discussed “wellness” category. These devices, such as IoT-enabled insulin monitors, are must meet ever increasing standards of patient usability and convenience, which means offering enhanced patient usability and convenience is another important driver of innovation in this segment. In the near future, patients with type 1 diabetes may be able to monitor their insulin levels using a contact lens developed in a collaboration between Novartis and Google, providing a better patient experience by eliminating the need to draw blood. Cornell University has developed a SMARTCard which can analyze a small blood sample for cholesterol levels and provide instant results on a patient’s smartphone through the use of its onboard camera. For patients to care for themselves using these systems, they must operate the devices and interfaces themselves making user friendliness and fool proof operation key concerns for product developers.

These examples of self-care systems utilizing IoT-enabled devices are just the tip of the iceberg in this nascent space, but substantial barriers are present, which the next article in this series aims to examine. The demands for more efficient care models and better patient experiences for chronic care ensures that self-care MHealth systems will continue to experience growth for the foreseeable future.

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