The evolution of connected healthcare is starting to accelerate. Even though medical devices and services can take years to go through FDA approval, consumers and individual doctors are moving to adopt new practices based on connected health devices and services. In 2011, we surveyed consumers and industry leaders around the world and found very high levels of readiness to adopt new practices and technologies. We identified key user segments for connected devices. Some, the active and health conscious, are using new devices to push their athletic performance. A much larger group of users is ready to adopt medical devices to help manage their own chronic illnesses. (You can read the full IBM study on connected health devices here.)
In 2012, my own expectation is that we'll see some acceleration in the connected health space.
The basis of many connected health devices is data gathering. What you ate. Where you ran. How much time you spent sitting and doing nothing. Relying on individuals to collect their own data and enter it into systems is the Achilles' heel of many connected health services. While there's compelling evidence that the mere act of recording what you ate causes people to improve their diets, getting people to keep up that discipline is very difficult. The same goes for exercise and activity. Mobile devices with cameras, sensors, and GPS are starting to make that data collection better. Some of that is increasingly automatic. Where data collection can't be automated yet (think tracking your diet) mobile apps are reminding people to do their data entry and rewarding them with online badges and prizes for keeping it up.
From GPS watches to fitness wrist bands from Nike, Epson, Fitbit, and Jawbone, consumers are snapping up tracking devices that leverage PC and smartphone connections to track data and upload into the cloud seamlessly. As prices come down, expect to see these devices everywhere, from serious athletes to weekend warriors. Apple's new iPhone 4S is the first with Bluetooth 4.0, a low power protocol which allows devices like heart rate monitors to connect wirelessly with battery life in the weeks, not hours.
PCs and tablets are spreading fast into the medical space. With a convenient form factor and a battery that lasts all day, doctors are finding tablets to be ideal tools for everyday use. A recent survey in Europe revealed that a large portion of doctors are already using iPads in their everyday work. As devices come down in price, they are likely to become ubiquitous. Hospitals and medical organizations are also getting smarter about how to deploy these devices securely, minimizing local data storage and enabling remote lock and wipe for managing lost devices.
It's one thing to know what you've eaten and where you've been running. It's another to get suggestions and coaching - and that's the next big leap that's coming in connected health. BodyMedia was one of the first companies to deploy industrial-strength analytics to develop coaching recommendations (supported by IBM's technology, naturally, more info here). More recommendations and coaching are surely coming, on every health and fitness topic. A recent New York Times article reported that having a sweet snack in the morning after breakfast makes it easier for people to stick to their diets. Perhaps you'll be getting reminders on your smartphone in the future suggestion that now is a good time for a cookie and a cup of coffee.
All these connected health services, hopefully mean better health for all of us. Personalized coaching and rich data collection has the potential to transform the way patients are treated. Care for people with long term conditions increasingly depends not on short interventions like surgery or quick course in antibiotics, but on long-term treatments and changes in behavior. With connected devices and automated, personalized coaching, the cost of treatment can be manageable and the success rate can be much higher.
The biggest challenge that connected health poses is that users—be they patients or doctors - are sprinting ahead of the regulatory framework. Last month, my eldest son had a rash on his behind. So I did what every modern, connected parent in Silicon Valley does: I took a photo with iPhone and emailed my pediatrician. He promptly replied with recommendations. No office visit needed. Convenient, fast and efficient— yes. Secure? Probably not.
Paul Brody is the global electronics industry leader at IBM Global Business Services.