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10 January 2020

Connected Health Devices resurface in more receptive market

This year’s CES saw the annual batch of Connected Healthcare Devices (CHDs) cropping up once again. Looking back over previous years, there seems to be a clear pattern – CHDs appear at CES and then soon vanish due to a lack of supporting infrastructure from Big Tech and insurance firms.

Will this year be any different? 2019 saw Big Tech racing to involve themselves with as much of the health sector as possible. This would suggest that CHDs have a more stable footing in today’s market.

Both Google and Amazon have been aggressively partnering with and acquiring major players in health and insurance. CEOs are also ramping up their rhetoric. At a Time 100 summit in April last year, Tim Cook proposed “Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind will be healthcare.”

Consumers also increasingly enjoy the flexibility, insights and savings delivered when healthcare integrates with technology – as well as the ability to better understand their bodies, via these ‘quantified self’ offerings. Speaking at CES on a Digital Health panel, Rally Health’s COO, Brenda Yang, said that “increasingly, consumers expect to engage with the healthcare system on the web or through their mobile devices.”

New CHDs exhibited at CES include Mateo, a smart bath mat that has been named a CES 2020 Innovation Awards Honoree. Delivered through an app, Mateo can tell users their weight, muscle, bone and fat mass, hydration, pressure footprint, balance, and posture.

Elvie has announced an insights feature on the app for its Elvie Pump, a small, wearable breast pump. This provides analytics such as time spent pumping, aggregated milk volume pumped, and the rate of milk expressed for each breast. Women can get a clear idea of their pumping behavior and real time milk volume, allowing informed decisions on how best to pump.

Elsewhere in baby care, Pampers has announced Lumi, dubbed “the world’s first all-in-one connected baby care system.” Lumi provides parents insights into their baby’s daily routine, based on data collected from a smart video monitor and an activity sensor. An app collects all this information for parents to see and provides analytics on how the parents can best help their baby.

We have seen smart baby care products bomb at CES before. Back at 2014’s show, Intel announced the Edison chip, a low powered SD card that could easily be incorporated in wearables. And so, the Mimo smart baby onesie was born. This wacky idea drew a lot of attention, but quickly went nowhere.

But back then, the merging of healthcare and technology industries was barely underway. Big Tech is now switched on to the sector. Google’s recent $2.1bn acquisition of Fitbit shows confidence in the increasing use of health monitoring devices. Almost half the US own a fitness tracker, with the wearables market expected to grow to $27bn by 2022. Demand for certain CHDs is clearly there.

Google has furthered its involvement in the health sector through Verily’s partnerships with health and insurance firms. Many of these have been with ‘academic health systems’ – vast, localized collectives of hospitals, care facilities and research centers.

Verily has said that all such partnerships aiming support and advanced localized healthcare eco systems are aiming to advance these services towards “value-base care”. This is a form of health care whereby the patient is charged on the results, results which presumably could be monitored and altered by CHDs.

 

Verily has also been investing its energy into partnerships that directly link CHDs and insurance. October saw Verily partner with John Hancock, a US insurance provider, in collaboration with existing Verily partner, Onduo, a virtual clinic for people with type-2 diabetes. The Onduo app gives its patients access to personal specialists and analytics on a user’s condition.

The partnership will pair Onduo’s services with the John Hancock Aspire with Vitality insurance program for customers living with diabetes. This will be like other Vitality insurance programs, where users are rewarded taking steps to improve their health, a process often monitored by CHDs. Over 30mn Americans live with diabetes and the Aspire with Vitality program allows consumers to save up to 25% on their insurance premiums.

Amazon has also spent the past year inserting itself into the health sector. In October, Amazon acquired Health Navigator, a firm which provides technology services to digital health companies. Health Navigator has been incorporated into Amazon’s own healthcare service, Amazon Care, which is already being trialed for Amazon employees in Seattle.

AWS is also pushing for its services to host healthcare provision and research. Big clients gained in the past year include Cerner and the NHS. On the research side, AWS has gained partners such as The Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance to advance innovation in cancer diagnosis, precision medicine, voice enabled technologies, and medical imaging.

Alexa has also been converted into a CHD, through its partnership with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). This followed a study at the University of Washington were both Alexa and Google Assistant were used by the University of Washington to monitor cardiac arrest in sleeping patients, and device advances from Fitbit and Omron – a flurry of activity in the connected healthcare sector.

 

However, public trust surrounding Big Tech’s involvement in the health sector has been tainted in recent years. Just months ago, the whistle was blown on Google’s Project Nightingale, an initiative set up to collect health data from over 50mn patients without them knowing. Technical faults are also always a concern. In 2018 IBM’s Watson AI was found to be giving incorrect diagnoses to cancer patients. As such CDHs must be tactical in how they move into the market, making sure they can gain consumer trust.

Equally, this excitement doesn’t mean that the partnership between Big Tech and health is to stay forever. In 2018, we covered that despite investing over $4bn on the project, IBM had cut between 50-70% of the staff at its Watson Health division. Acquisitions included $2.6bn for Truven’s medical data expertise in 2016 and $1bn for Merge’s medical imaging skill in 2015.

Yet overall, the market for CHDs seems more receptive than ever. If Big Tech continues to view healthcare as its true calling, then the CHDs seen at CES this year can be expected to stick around longer than previous years.