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Wearable Wars: A new hope for health

VP Strategy

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Doing digital health right requires expertise in three interdependent disciplines: healthcare, communications, and technology: You need to know the science, the marketing, and the tech—plus understand the unique audience needs and behaviors across each. Otherwise you build a tool that is clinically inaccurate, difficult to understand, or impossible to use.

As a specialty of digital health, “mobile health” exacerbates all the challenges and opportunities inherent throughout the triptych. Physically freeing the user brings the magic of digital to the point of care, the surgical theatre, a patient’s everyday routine—but makes arduous demands in how health data is expressed, stored, analyzed, and transferred.

That helps explain why health has gone mobile slower than most verticals, including media, eCommerce, finance, arts, and entertainment. Smartphones, tablets, and now the ubiquitous “phablet” have thrust the full power of digital into the pockets of billions of consumers who continuously browse, shop, chat, and share from everywhere, in real time.

But the wait is over! The summer/fall of 2014 will be remembered as the pivotal cross-over point where mobile health has leaped from an emerging tech curiosity to a mainstream must-have commodity. Let’s take a look at how wearables have shot mobile health to the front and center of major new brand strategies, forever changing the entire industry.


The Wearables Trilogy

Digital evolution oscillates incessantly between market dynamics, user behaviors, and technological sophistication. Companies are always motivated by larger share and more coin, of course, but introducing an innovative experience before audiences are ready for it or the technology can handle it often short circuits even the most creative and compelling ideas.

This summer brought a perfect storm to the wearables market, the technology at long last ready for millions of consumers the industry hopes are eager to embrace smartwatches. As Spitz has discussed, big players understand the innate connection between mobile health, collecting data, and the quantified self—but how will it be done, and who will lead?

The winner of the “Wearable Wars” for mobile health must solve four basic challenges: 1) Lack of standardized data; 2) Lack of interoperability between platforms, devices, and apps; 3) Lack of consistent quality and user experience across apps; and 4) Lack of proven approaches to assuaging ongoing and potentially damning privacy and safety concerns.

Criteria for long-term success involve multiple variables, including the holy grails of EHR integration, system standardization, and deep relationships with managed care. The developer and investment communities also play integral roles, as making life easier for those who create apps and discover new ways to fund and market them remain key.

Despite hundreds of contenders across thousands of wearable product offerings, the race has narrowed to Samsung, Google, and Apple, each placing health and wellness at the center of their push for brand differentiation and market dominance in the space. As we quickly examine each approach, striking strategic similarities emerge—but so does a likely leader.


Samsung as early adopter and promoter

First to successfully commoditize the Android operating system and larger smartphone sizes, the Korean company has also leaped on the opportunity to lodge digital health at the very core of their mobile focus. Their three-pronged strategic approach is designed to simplify and unify experiences for consumers, developers, and marketers, and consists of:

  1. An Integrated Data Platform
    • Millions of users, thousands of apps, numerous devices—where does the health data go, how is it processed, and how can an individual user make sense of it all? Samsung’s cloud-based data broker SAMI (“Samsung Architecture Multimodal Interactions”) is designed to be a secure, open, and diverse platform that collects data from any source and delivers it back to any device or app in real time.
      • Benefit: A single profile consolidates all user data into a standardized format that can then be analyzed, shared, and repurposed across any compatible digital interface.
      • Risk: What rights will Samsung have with this data, and what will they do with it? What about patient privacy and HIPAA concerns? Is the system secure?
  2. An Open-Source Developer System
    • Countless health and wellness apps track exercise, monitor heart rate, gauge caloric intake—how do developers make them consistent, accurate, and efficient for so many different types of users? Samsung offers Simband, an open-sourced reference design suited for biosensors and health-related analytics, plugging right into SAMI via the cloud and ensuring optimal and standardized user experiences and data management.
      • Benefit: Every Simband-based app will be consistent and fully compatible with all Samsung wearable devices and the backend SAMI data platform
      • Risk: Will the system be scalable and flexible enough to accommodate all user needs? Will developers be limited in terms of what they can and can’t do?
  3. High Profile Partnerships and Investment
    • Understanding the importance of startup incubation and research, Samsung has tapped into their Catalyst Fund of $50MM to stimulate ideation, and teamed with the University of California, San Francisco to create their own Digital Health Innovation Lab. A far cry from patent infringement cases and generic smartphone assembly lines, is the company now the Jedi Knight of mobile health and the quantified self?
      • Benefit: Commitments helps fuel innovation from the grassroots level and encourages authoritative digital health strategy and content creation.
      • Risk: Will such a consultative approach genuinely drive cutting edge research and product development, or is the initiative mostly spin and hot air?

1) Platform, 2) developer system, and 3) partnering, check! But if nobody buys the gadgets then none of these initiatives matter. Ta-da! Enter Galaxy Gear, Neo, Fit, and Live in wild orange, wine red, and mocha grey! Their full spectrum features and fashion have received fairly favorable reviews—an improvement since their first and less successful launch.


Three different takes on smartwatches... look remarkably similar

Three different takes on smartwatches… look remarkably similar


Health and wellness efforts are centered on Gear Fit, with built-in pedometer, heart rate and sleep monitors, and slickly smartphone-connected “S Health” application. Initial reviews are largely positive, although the SAMI and Simband backend are more potential than power so far. Samsung was first to the fray, but is their still unproven line up the best path ahead?


Google gives health another go via wearables

The demise of Google Health (likely due to privacy and scalability concerns) was a mere speed bump on the road to the quantified self, as the meteoric rise of the Android OS perfectly positions Google to give health and wellness another whirl—this time with biometrics from millions of users pumping data via established 3rd party apps and platforms.

Announced in late June during the Google I/O conference, “Google Fit” aims to engage users with a complete view of their fitness through a software developer kit (SDK) strategically analogous to Samsung’s Simband. With a single set of APIs the developer system is designed to enable every Android app to seamlessly communicate with every Android device:


An API that helps apps enable the user to be in control

An API that helps apps enable the user to be in control


In terms of establishing partnerships, Google has already forged bonds with Adidas, Nike, RunKeeper, and a host of other legacy players in the fitness tracking space. Through them Google hopes to standardize and own the health and wellness experience through every wearable device running Android—including, ironically enough, those from Samsung.

Google Fit strategy includes 2) a robust developer system and 3) partnering, check—but still remains unclear about integration with their 1) cloud-based data platform. Perhaps shell shocked from that Google Health foray, the search behemoth seems to focus more on fitness than increasingly sensitive health data, fueling the Wearable Wars as all eyes turn to Apple…


Apple Healthkit: from hysteria to health leader

Hype at a fever pitch! At long last the momentous September 9 event that announced the iPhone 6 line, Apple Watch, and Apple Pay! The roller coaster quickly plummeting as humility (and a nasty bug) crashed the stock for both investors and the health community! After these initial safety and tech hiccups, however, Apple still seems the wearable favorite.

1) Platform, 2) developer system, and 3) partnering, yes the strategic foundation we’ve already seen from Samsung and Google—but this time done Apple Style. Combine the entrenched infrastructure of iCloud, the iTunes distribution engine, best selling and seamlessly integrated devices on health-focused iOS 8, and IMHO Apple has the edge.

Apple has also taken partnership and investment in digital health seriously. Understanding that mobile health can only succeed if the healthcare system understands and utilizes it, Apple has partnered with Epic and the Mayo Clinic to make both EHR integration and authoritative medical content essential components of a genuine “Rx of mobile health.”

The company has also made key hires of a diverse array of experts from multiple verticals, including health, fitness, and even fashion. Authoritative health content is certainly central, while sensitivity to “wearable chic” is equally key for consumer electronics, a dorky reality Google Glass has been grappling with—in stark contrast to the innate techno cool of Apple:


Understated and useful, Apple products just work

Understated and useful, Apple products just work


Despite the initial glitches, Healthkit is poised to successfully consumerize the quantified self, and is already well on its way thanks to academic and institutional partnerships, exciting app development, and electronic health record integration. Wall Street seems to share the optimism, but regulatory boogey-men lurk and developers still have the jitters.

Although the list of Healthkit-connected apps keeps growing, Apple shifted gears just before the big September 9 announcement by putting limits on developers selling personal data to advertisers; they also seemed to tuck Healthkit behind the Apple Watch and Apple Pay in prominence, uncertain tremors suggesting Apple Health is not yet ready for prime time.

No surprise considering health data sensitivity and the highly regulated medical device industry. With guidance on mobile medical applications hot off the press, speculation swirls as Apple and Google meet with the FDA—patients and pundits alike are tantalized and traumatized by the possibility these players actually transform into healthcare companies.


Implications for Pharma

Meanwhile, pharma and device marketers have been watching this perfect storm of mobile health, wearables, and regulation slowly grow and now explode. The space even more crowded and complex with Facebook and even Amazon now allegedly diving into health, brand teams are more excited and intimidated than ever before: “What should we do now?”

The quick answer is “Wait and see.” With the jury still out on how a patient’s health data will be exactly stored, who will have access to it, and how it can be shared, what pharma will or won’t be able to do with that data remains contingent on too many unknown variables. Nascent speculation abounds, but making any move now is glaringly premature.

The short-term answer is “Understand the ecosystems.” As we’ve seen, wearable systems are designed to solve the four key challenges currently facing mobile health, and do so in a very consistent, three-part way. So get to know the platforms, the developer kits, and the partnerships, and discuss with experts how pharma could engage at each touch point.

The long-term and most satisfying answer is “Be optimistic!” Pharma apps are already surprisingly abundant—hopefully now with proprietary platforms like SAMI/Simband, Google Fit, and HealthKit, pharma will be able to create meaningful experiences that are consistent, utilized, and have the amazing power patients and physician’s now dream about.

Yes, the quantified self has finally become not only possible but inevitable, thanks to the transformative “Wearable Wars” begun this summer of 2014. The future of digital health points to incredible patient benefit—but the risk of succumbing to the Dark Side of abuse and control are equally manifest. Driving tech forward we must not only be smart, but just.


Summary and Key Takeaways

How do you think the wearable revolution will impact pharma? Klick is eager to continue the conversation, and partner with the industry’s top digital health strategy and innovation. Follow @SpitzStrategy and the Klick blog for the very latest mHealth news.

More About the Author

Michael Spitz

A digital health expert since before digital health was cool, Spitz has since developed omnichannel campaigns for top pharma and device brands, and helps drive agency innovation, digital transformation, and emerging channels. See him present at conferences, read his blogs, and follow him for the latest trends and opinions on Twitter @SpitzStrategy.

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