AT&T's play into health IT builds momentum

AT&T took another big leap ahead of its competitors in the mHealth market this past week, helping to launch a group to assist in developing accountable care organizations and hiring its first-ever chief medical information officer. Oh, and it soon may be selling mobile medical devices in its retail stores.

All this activity got me to thinking about my supposition a few months ago: Will the telecom behemoths--AT&T, Verizon and Sprint--be content to provide the networking and other infrastructure components to the evolving mobile environment? Or, will they be seduced, as so many companies outside healthcare have been in the past few months, by the meteoric growth in the mHealth market, and want to become a central player/provider?

At this point, I'm still not sure what to think. Randall Porter, vice president of AT&T's ForHealth division, is emphatic that the company has no intention of becoming "a healthcare provider," and tells FierceMobileHealthcare that it plans to employ its networking, Wi-Fi, cellular and other services to enable other vendors' products to work better. Their efforts to date have matched that philosophy.

Even so, I remain somewhat skeptical that AT&T will be able to resist the pace of change in mHealth, and possible profits associated with producing and marketing some of the plethora of mobile devices that consumers and professionals alike seem so hungry for.

Here's a quick rundown of AT&T's latest mHealth moves. See what you think:

ACOs: AT&T joined technology heavyweights Microsoft, Intel, Siemens and Cisco to create the Accountable Care Community of Practice, which bills itself as a new supporter of coordinated care initiatives in general, and ACOs in particular.

Their goal: To help providers create ACOs that work. ACOs will "support a healthcare solution, not a healthcare system, that integrates all providers into a community of coordinated care," Justin Barnes, co-chair of Accountable Care CoP, said according to Healthcare IT News. "In this solution, providers are not just referring patients, but sharing data and care plans, lab results, testing options, diagnoses, medication history--and equally important--patient adherence history."

One member, Premier Healthcare Alliance, already has created model standards for mapping out the technologies needed for coordinated care. Porter says AT&T doesn't have any projects on the table yet, as far as the ACO group goes, but may soon.

CMIO: AT&T also just hired its first chief medical information officer, physician Geeta Nayyar, to head up its growing ForHealth division. She brings an in-the-trenches perspective to AT&T's emerging mobile healthcare strategy, having worked to implement an electronic medical record at George Washington University.

This past spring, she told social media blogger JD Kathuria that she sees a powerful connection between mHealth and physician work processes, and expects mobile technology to "incrementally become a bigger part of healthcare information sharing and consumer engagement." One interesting perspective: She sees physicians as "tech-savvy" and very likely to begin creating their own apps, for their own use, "rather than use one created by someone else."

It will be interesting to see how that translates into her development work with AT&T's existing mobile initiatives, like WellDoc diabetes management, "smart slippers" remote falls and mobility monitoring program, and an ongoing telehealth project with St. Joseph's Health System in Orange, Calif.

Porter notes the company is hoping to leverage her position as a physician in its public policy dealings, too. "She lends another level of credibility to our efforts. We want to show that we have [physician] expertise in our leadership," he says.

Retail sales: AT&T officials are pushing hard to grab a piece of the mobile health market, going so far as to include healthcare devices in the new "emerging devices wall" created for its newly revamped 2,200 retail stores, Glenn Lurie, president of AT&T's emerging-devices, national resale and partnerships division, tells USA Today.

AT&T retail outlets eventually may carry a number of mobile healthcare devices, including medicine management devices like Vitality's GlowCaps and the soon-to-be-released personal monitoring Libri keyfob from BlueLibris. Porter wouldn't provide a timeline, but indicates if consumer demand is there, it's definitely on the drawing board.

What do you think? Will AT&T be content to stay in the background? - Sara (@FierceHealthIT)