M-health might take a lesson from a more tawdry industry

I've written plenty about mobile technology being a disruption to the status quo in healthcare and I produced a FierceHealthIT special report on disruptive forces in health IT not too long ago. But I've never addressed the issue quite the way British blogger Nick Hunn did last week.

"Even for disruptive technologies, it often needs an unexpected and sometimes even unconnected industry to invent and develop a new application in order to drive things to a point where the disruption can be taken up and embraced by others," Hunn writes on the Creative Connectivity blog. "So, if Mobile Health is going to get anywhere it probably needs to follow the same course and forget about conventional medical thinking, [which generally involves a doctor], and embrace some more disruptive models. To put it more bluntly, we need to find out what the equivalent of pornography is for healthcare."

Um, yeah.

What Hunn is trying to say is that the porn industry pioneered streaming video, online payments and advanced user interfaces back in the early days (read: late 1990s) of the Internet. "Payment mechanisms a decade ago were relatively primitive. It was a world before PayPal, when today's giants like Amazon and Google were still Internet toddlers. Streaming video and the ability to cope with large files were still in their infancy, with RealVideo only a few years old. No one would have believed the situation we have today, with high quality video on demand services for mobile phones and TV."

Today, mobile health doesn't really have a sustainable business model, just like so many e-commerce sites during the dot-com bubble. "What is important to understand if you're developing a Mobile Health business model is that the companies who are now at the forefront of delivering Internet services were not generally those leading the development of these features," Hunn says, noting that online stores weren't making much money back in the day. "The industry which had that was pornography. It developed a product that people would pay for, which had little if any regulation and which needed to innovate. It succeeded and provided the foundation for many more conventional Internet business models."

Too many companies are trying to extend their legacy business models onto Internet and mobile platforms, according to Hunn, and aren't being disruptive in a way that might spur wide adoption and make their new ventures sustainable for the long term. Some purveyors of diet pills, vitamins and other "high tech snake oil," as Hunn puts it, are making money because they address perceived market needs such as envy, hope, despair and guilt.

"These are markets which are looked down on by the medical community. That might be valid in terms of any evidence base for their efficacy, but their business models can teach the mobile health industry a thing or two," says Hunn.

"Rather than selling an extension of today's medical practice, they're selling hope," he explains. "The companies involved innovate regularly, without the stultifying board presence of consultants and academics who are trying to commercialise their personal great idea. Which means they often succeed."

The lesson here is to lose old mindsets and--apologies now for using this phrase--think outside the box. Healthcare probably can learn a few things from an industry that may disgust a segment of the population. But the disruption--and profits--from giving people what they want might just turn out to be obscene. - Neil