Industry Voices—Do we really need more health apps and wearables? The shifting focus of digital health

Apple Watch
The new Apple Watch Series 4 debuted this fall with an FDA “de novo” cleared electrocardiogram functionality, as well as fall detection, arrhythmia alerts, apps for easing blood-glucose monitoring, and features for collecting, tracking, and sharing personal health data with caregivers and physicians. (Apple)

The digital health market is a crowded place, particularly in the mobile segment. Consider the estimated 325,000 mobile health applications currently available according to the most recent mHealth Economics report and more than 300-million wearable devices sold according to Gartner, and you’d be forgiven for believing it’s also a mature ecosystem.

Michelle de Haaff (Glooko)

But the truth is that a significant percentage of what is classified as mobile “digital health” technology is not having an impact from a medical perspective because it is not reaching the right people.

Wearable fitness trackers and weight loss app marketers report high user retention and engagement rates, but peer-reviewed research documenting improved health outcomes remains elusive. In fact, research published in The Lancet and JAMA casts doubt on capturing any sustainable health benefit for people in need from such solutions. We can dismiss many of these offerings as fads that will end up getting abandoned, deleted, or thrown in a drawer and forgotten a few months after purchase.

RELATED: Health IT Roundup—New Apple Watch redesign features focus on health options

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What we need are fewer gimmicks that provide game-like distraction for a few weeks or feed consumer desire to drop a few pounds, and more bona fide solutions for addressing serious and widespread health issues. 

For example, according to a recent American Diabetes Association economic impact report, the total cost of diagnosed diabetes in the U.S. was about $327 billion in 2017, “including $237 billion in direct medical costs and $90 billion in reduced productivity. For the cost categories analyzed, care for people with diagnosed diabetes accounts for 1 in 4 health care dollars in the U.S.” Chronic conditions such as diabetes are debilitating the nation both physically and financially, and that’s where digital health innovation should be focused. We don’t need fitness technology for people who are already healthy. What we need are big-impact apps designed to improve existing patient conditions and show real clinical results.

That’s why I was heartened by a noticeable shift in focus demonstrated at the high-profile Apple Watch Series 4 debut this fall.

As expected at any high-tech special event, device design and chip improvements were detailed. But the most exciting features of the product (widely covered by the media) highlighted FDA “de novo” cleared electrocardiogram functionality, as well as fall detection, arrhythmia alerts, apps for easing blood-glucose monitoring, and features for collecting, tracking, and sharing personal health data with caregivers and physicians.

These innovations aim higher than merely fueling fitness fads. They’re geared toward serious health care support for digitally addressing chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

RELATED: New study offers ‘humbling’ assessment of Apple Watch’s ability to predict irregular heartbeats

And it would appear the trend is a sustainable one, given that the FDA’s Digital Health Innovation Action Plan is now in full swing and encourages this shift in development focus. The FDA is starting to approve digitally driven therapeutics that are focused on direct support for those most in need of help. And there is growing evidence that other innovators are exploring sober use of mobile technology for digital health solutions that truly serve improved health outcomes.

I’m hopeful that we’ll finally start to see more solutions that will actually impact people’s lives, rather than just track healthy people’s exercise and diet.

Michelle de Haaff is vice president of strategic partners for Glooko.