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Mobile health is taking off but what’s still in its way?

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First, the good news: a growing class of mobile health apps are helping people do everything from lose weight to manage diabetes to chat and talk with doctors in real time. Investment in the sector is expected to increase by 25 percent for the next five years and, according to Chilmark Research, it could exceed $1.1 billion by 2017.

But healthcare innovation experts say the vast majority of mobile apps fail to engage consumers and the category as a whole has yet to win over doctors.

“Most of these apps are actually awful. There may be 12,000 apps out there but they’re not 12,000 good apps,” Chris Wasden, Global Healthcare Innovation Leader for PwC, said at the MedCity Converge health tech conference Tuesday. “They’re mostly bad apps that people rarely use.”

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Center, only ten percent of adult cell phone users in the U.S. have downloaded a health app, with some never using it or only using it once.

Wasden said effective apps reflect six principles – interoperability, integration (with doctors’ workflows and patients’ lives), intelligence, outcomes, socialization and engagement – but very few actually do that.

Aside from the issues with the apps themselves, he said recent research conducted by PwC found that even though patients are eager to adopt mobile health, doctors and the larger system surrounding them are reluctant to change things up.

“Consumers are demanding it,” he said. “Doctors see mobile healthcare being much more transformative and disruptive to their practice. This transformation and disruption is so painful that they’re very resistant to doing those changes.”

Interestingly, while some say it comes down to money, Wasden said it’s not just about paying doctors to accept the new technology because research shows that insurance companies are more willing to pay for mobile healthcare services than doctors are willing to provide them.

When asked, he added, physicians say their biggest concerns are the lack of training around mobile health, liability concerns and discomfort related to the new data it generates and its disruption to their workflow.

Brad Weinberg, MD, co-founder of NY-based health tech accelerator Blueprint Health, said another challenge founders of health apps (and other health tech products) face is a cultural mismatch between the traditional values of the medical community and accepted tenets of launching a startup.

“One of the biggest hurdles … is the balance between needing documented proven outcomes – which have their role and their place in the development of a company’s product – and just getting the initial validation that you’ve gotten something that people want and is really solving a key pain point,” he said.

Another challenge for mobile health, which was only briefly noted in the panels I listened to but cited as an issue by other health tech innovators I spoke to later, is the looming concern that FDA regulation will stifle innovation and investment. In July of last year, the agency issued its first draft guidance on the regulation of mobile health apps and only reviews a very small percentage of the total released to market. (When an app is used to diagnose patients or replace the role of a physician, it gets an FDA review.) But as the potential for more advanced functionality increases, the regulatory impact is likely to become a bigger concern.

Even now, Wasden said, the threat of FDA intervention incentivizes entrepreneurs to create apps that aren’t as useful as they could be. Even though consumers indicate that they want “intelligent” apps that can not just aggregate user data but also generate recommendations and insights, app developers deliberately avoid the opportunity.

“It’s a real weakness of most apps,” he said. “They’re so afraid of the FDA that they create themselves as dumb apps on purpose, so they can avoid an FDA review. “

5 Responses to “Mobile health is taking off but what’s still in its way?”

  1. Kevin Pereau

    My wife and I have been using a product called quentiq. They are Swiss based start-up with activity tracking for about 100 different things. It has cut down on the number of “Map My Somethings” we need to down load. We use their app to track activities but what really brings us back is their social platform. It feels like Facebook when I log onto my home page. My family, friends and even workmates are all here encouraging my healthy behaviors. They also have a health score that ties it all together. I will say this. They have taken a holistic approach and challenged me to not only live healthier but to better understand what constitutes good health. We use it EVERY DAY. I’ve lost about 25 LBS and for the first time I can see how and why. I used to give my health care provider my weight, BMI, body fat and blood pressure once a year. Now, I check those things every day. It takes me two minutes using wireless and integrated devices. There are 1001 apps out there trying to address this market and I get what most of them are offering in one from QUENTIQ. No joke, check them out at Its addicting!

  2. joeketcherside

    What do you see as the biggest obstacles to developers to solve this problem? One of my biggest issues is getting good user feedback before release. Many of these apps come from small startups like mine. We can engage a small number of users during development, but 2 or 3 years of R&D before first release isn’t feasible. We can release early and respond to user feedback but that means an incomplete app is out there. Do you think that could be why so many of the apps out there miss the mark?

  3. Arjun Yadav

    Something I noticed too. These health apps on the Apple or Google app store are usually run of the mill. They promise various tools and tracking abilities but lack the engagement factor in them.

    • Nicholas Paredes

      I have to agree. I was working on compliance apps for a large pharmacy, and realized that the problem was a combination of social, app, and incentives. Sadly, I had already fought enough battles there and moved on. Their compliance feature is pretty sad.

      I am looking at some HIV compliance issues, and hope to get a model out over the next year. The market just isn’t moving much, and as the article notes, it will take the entire village to determine some solid use cases.