Moving past the hype on mobile, wearables for consumer health

[grow_thumb image=”” thumb_width=”150″ /]Directionally positive, but still quite developmental in reality. The gold rush not quite begun.

In the past week or two, this Editor has been working her way through a stack of surveys and journal-published research, all heavily promoting the greater interest in and usage of consumer mobile health. Here we have Monique Levy of the well-regarded Manhattan Research finding in their surveys (via Mobihealthnews):

  • 86 percent of the general population is online for health
    • Half of those use mobile
    • Two-thirds use social media to seek health information
    • One-third communicate digitally with doctors
    • Three-quarters interact with online pharma resources
    • About 20 percent of patients say that mobile is essential for managing their care–increasing to 32 percent of people with diabetes, 39 percent for people with MS

Before the D3H (Digital Health Hypester Horde) crowd vaults over the moon, however, Ms Levy states that “What people mostly do on their smartphone is look for information.” She recommends optimizing websites (in this context, primarily pharma) for mobile search, and apps should address “real customer pain points or niche needs”, not just a cool tracking app.

Yes, but the D3H point out the fifth annual ‘Pulse of Online Health’ by Makovsky Health (healthcare PR agency) and Kelton (research), a survey of over 1,000 adults, headlining that almost two-thirds (66 percent)of Americans would use a mobile app to manage health-related issues, with millennials (18-34s) twice as likely to be interested than those 66+. However, discerning readers will immediately flag that last statement as almost a straw man: well, of course those who are natives of the mobile phone world will naturally gravitate to it. The rest of the release, with attention-grabbing numbers, is conditionally larded with ‘would be willing’, ‘reflect proactive desires’, ‘express interest’. And the giveaway is the word wouldwoulda, coulda, shoulda, it doesn’t mean they are(a). Note the falloff even in this Never-Never Land as usage gets more specific (again from Mobihealthnews):

  • 91 percent of respondents said they would search online for health information
  • 58 percent would use online search to manage an existing condition
  • 57 percent to explore symptoms and 55 percent to research a treatment that’s been prescribed to them.

The numbers sink, contrary to reasonable assumptions, if they were diagnosed with a medical condition: 41 percent said they would research symptoms online, 26 percent would research treatment options, and 18 percent would research specialist doctors and treatment facilities.

And yes, of course in the Woulda World, 79 percent would be willing to use an undefined ‘wearable’ (watch? band? pendant? shirt?), mainly for tracking physical activity and symptoms. Contrast this to Ms Levy on wearables: don’t worry about them unless you’re responsible for thinking five years ahead.

D3H hearts sink….

Let’s look at studies which look at where mHealth can do the most good–adherence to chronic disease management. The Journal of Medical Internet Research did a meta-study of 107 studies to evaluate the effectiveness of mHealth on the management of cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes. Methods included were SMS (text); phone plus software or application; phone plus specific instrument (medical device connected to phone via a cord); or phone plus wireless or Bluetooth-compatible device. SMS (40.2 percent) was the most commonly used tool and the primary platform. From the abstract: “Of the 41 RCTs (randomized controlled trials-Ed.) that measured effects on disease-specific clinical outcomes, significant improvements between groups were reported in 16 studies (39%). It concluded: “There is potential for mHealth tools to better facilitate adherence to chronic disease management, but the evidence supporting its current effectiveness is mixed.” iHealthBeat points out the difficulties surfaced in the study: difficulty understanding and using the technology; and concerns among providers about the amount of time and effort required to review data and respond to patients.

FierceMobileHealthcare also references in their article the potential for SMS (text) in mental health, med adherence, teen diabetics with engagement and with healthcare teams.

For this Editor, this confirms the wisdom of the 2013 Parks Associates study which was analyzed by us here in Drawn and Quartered last year. The health conscious, either healthy or health-challenged, are the ones most likely to use mHealth tools, including apps. Yes, that audience ticks just over 51 percent–in potential.

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Takeaways: Perhaps the simplest form of mobile communication–the least expensive and the one that crosses age, education and income lines proves to be the most effective, versus Bluetooth and other device related forms of measurement. mHealth is not to be found purely in apps–the apps need to solve a consumer problem. And it does not help the app cause that bogus apps like Mole Detector and some hypertension apps are like weeds in the summer–and that there is no public vetting mechanism or even a rating system, save for those who want to peruse iMedicalApps–and whatever happened to IMS Health’s AppScript/AppNucleus anyway? [TTA 9 Jan]

Categories: Latest News.


  1. “Ms Levy states that “What people mostly do on their smartphone is look for information”

    This is a classic misunderstanding of what’s going on with mobile. The reality is the primary reason most of us have a mobile is to remain “reachable”. Smartphone’s extend ‘reachability’ to social media sites like Facebook etc but it remains the primary reason we use and carry a mobile. Tomi Ahonen & Alan Moore explain the importance of reachability as “the human need to feel connected” in their Communities Dominate Brands book from 2005 (it was way ahead of it’s time). It’s well worth making sense of ‘reachability’ before jumping into the deep end and trying to gauge whether Patients feel they need mHealth apps or not because with a mobile comes reachability and that is and of itself a mHealth app if you need to request help or help another in their time of need:

    The reality is that while 32% of those who are surveyed by Manhattan Research with diabetes say that their mobile is essential for managing their care the reality is it might be worth asking the other 68% if they’d even consider giving up their mobile. I’m quite sure you’d also get a very different answer from their carers eg. look at this BBC profile of the dexcom and try and appreciate the personal expense and effort a paramedic mother has gone to simply monitor her daughters BG levels while attending school:

    • Monique Levy

      Hi both – thank you for the thorough article and comment. These are complex and layered topics that are hard to have via comments made at a conference for Beginner Pharma Marketers. A few thoughts that may help clarify and add:
      1. The context of the comments that mobile is primarily used for health information seeking (among mobile health users) was in relation to the prevailing assumption I find with clients that smartphones are already positioned to change behavior and health decisions based on decision support and condition management programs. In terms of priorities, pharma marketers need to think of meeting the immediate need for information at multiple points through the journey.
      2. There is strong potential for technology to help people change their health behavior and manage conditions. Wearables may be a part of that, or text, or a website on a large desktop; but there are other, arguably, more challenging issues to solve. Privacy and security, figuring out which data is relevant and what dependent variables matter, understanding how to effectively incorporate data into decision-making and practice goals like quality, finding which behavioral models work remotely and for which populations etc…Smart tech alone cant solve these problems.
      3. I think the assertion that smartphones are primarily a connectivity medium/device makes sense to me – we haven’t tested it. I’m not sure its the first health reason though that people use smartphones, but I’d have to research that to find out.

      Thanks for taking the discussion further.