Apple and google and samsung oh my

Three of the world’s biggest technology companies – Apple, Google and Samsung — have made big announcements in the world of connected health in the past few weeks. A fourth is positioned to enter the fray. These major announcements illustrate the convergence of consumer technology, health, and wearables, with the potential for Big Data and population health impacts.

Among the three tech giants, Samsung announced its consumer health/tech story first, on May 28, 2014, at its Digital Health Initiative meeting. Samsung unveiled the Samsung Architecture Multimodal Interactions platform, SAMI, along with the Simband prototype wristband that would enable users to view health data Dick Tracy-style, via smartwatch. The company is allocating $50 million in development funds for early-stage digital health investments and is sponsoring a developer challenge. Compared with Apple and Google, Samsung in the Grand Old Man in health care: the company is a global player in digital imaging and clinical diagnostics, electronic health records, and is investing over $2 billion in a Korean biopharmaceutical company. Samsung has also already brought to market the S Health platform that tracks health data (e.g., heart rate).

Enter Apple, which unveiled its HealthKit platform at its Worldwide Developers Conference June 2-6 2014. HealthKit would collect data through health and fitness apps that would then be sent to an Apple app, Health (think of this as a place on an Apple iPhone or iPad like Contacts or Notes). Like Samsung, Apple may be developing a smartwatch for health monitoring, too. Apple is working with several health ecosystem players including Nike (which has a long track record in fitness tracking and recently stopping manufacturing its popular Fuelband tracker), the Mayo Clinic, and Epic, the dominant electronic health records company. HealthKit is slated to be available with the launch of iOS8 in Fall 2014.

The third big item: Forbes broke the story that Google plans to present Google Fit at the company’s upcoming I/O conference on June 25, 2014.  According to the conference schedule, there will be sessions called “Wearable Computing with Google” and “Designing for Wearables.” Rumor has it that Google Fit would collect health and fitness data from wearable devices and apps through an open API platform.

There’s a fourth entrant that’s not made an announcement…yet…worth mentioning. Microsoft will offer a health smartwatch this autumn that will track heart rate. Given that Microsoft has been keeping the HealthVault platform warm for several years, it is conceivable that the software giant is cooking up something akin to the Apple-Google-Samsung visions. Microsoft also has a large footprint in health care enterprises.

On a parallel track this week, Teresa Wang of Rock Health, the health-tech incubator, weighed in on the future of wearables and biosensing, bringing some rational thinking to the irrational exuberance that has marked many industry analysts bullish forecasts on wearables. Wang noted that “while a few data aggregators have attempted to become the platform that increases data liquidity, we seem to have simply built more fragmentation on top of the universe of devices.” The firm is optimistic about the convergence of functionality, convenience and reliability for the best of biosensing wearable devices.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  The supply side of digital health is fast-growing, and smartwatches are a particularly go-go segment for the upcoming 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Consumer Electronics Association is planning for a 2,000 square foot exhibit space for The Smart Watch Marketplace, which will feature lifestyle technologies — including fitness and health technology. This year, the digital health exhibitors at CES grew 40% over 2013, which grew 25% over 2012’s exhibitor volume.

With the announcements from Apple, Google and Samsung, there will be much enthusiasm for this category.

That’s the supply side.

What about the consumers for these devices and apps? According to a survey by Endeavor Partners quoted by Wang, the rate of engagement for activity trackers falls below 50% within 18 months.

That’s not very helpful when it comes to actual health behavior change that drives health outcomes for the individual, and population health outcomes that move the needle for employers and health plans, which will be aggregator customer channels for the consumer electronics companies. That Samsung has been working with CIGNA is evidence that the company gets this dynamic.

There are other obstacles to consumer adoption of these new-new technologies. How will privacy and security be assured, especially when it comes to the trusted stewardship of personal health information? A study published last year found that PHI generated by consumers in their own downloaded health apps often ends up with third parties who aren’t covered by HIPAA and other privacy regimes.

And how do consumers differentiate between an offering that seems undifferentiated between an Apple, a Google, or a Samsung (or Microsoft?). Who is the trusted brand when it comes to health and fitness, and the privacy aspect?

Finally, the big wild card question is: just how many consumers really want to track their health?

That’s where those aggregators and influencers — health plans. employers, communities, providers — come into play. These stakeholders could help socialize the adoption of wearable health technologies and apps, artfully using behavioral economics (such as incentives for health plan premium discounts) and gamification (like workplace competitions) to drive demand among consumers.

In the meantime, stay tuned for Google’s “real” announcement on June 25th 2014, along with Microsoft’s entry in a few months. There will be much chaos abounding in this marketspace in the coming months before measureable creation of health knowledge and behavior change.