mHealth-related technologies are coming down the pike which might soon have an impact on the health care system.
Collecting and analyzing digital health data is a smart idea, and one that is likely to work profound changes in the health care system over time. However, it's likely to be years before medical practices and hospitals figure out how to import, organize and make sense of this data, much less leverage it to improve patient health or save money on healthcare costs.
However, other mHealth-related technologies are coming down the pike which might have a more immediate impact on the health care system. According to Dirk Schapeler, director of digital health at Bayer HealthCare LLC, who spoke at a recent conference, the latest smartphone technologies also include hardware and apps letting a person sample and test their own blood, DNA and urine.
Schafer told attendees at the IDTechEx conference that a number of companies are already developing portable phone attachments that can perform several key tests and monitoring functions, including measuring insulin levels, checking heart rates and testing oxygen saturation levels.
Startup building home-testing suite
For example, a Silicon Valley startup called Scanadu is developing a suite of devices which will enable consumers to monitor their health at home, including Scanaflo—a urine test kit that will allow patients to conduct such tests at home in conjunction with a smartphone.
Scanaflo will test for levels of glucose, protein, leukocytes, nitrites, blood, bilirubin, urobilinogen, microalbumin, creatinine, keytone, specific gravity and pH (lest this sound too complicated, it's worth noting that Scanaflo's companion smartphone app walks users through the testing process.) Once the results are complete, the patient can whisk them to their doctor wirelessly.
To date, Scanadu has raised $10.5 million in venture funding, with investors that include Relay Ventures, Tony Hsieh's VegasTechFund, Jerry Yang's Ame Cloud Ventures and others. What's more, Scanadu just generated $1.6 million on Indiegogo—drastically overshooting its $100,000 goal—to create Scanadu Scout, "the first medical tricorder."
Big savings ahead
When this new breed of technology is rolled out, it could mean immediate savings for the healthcare system. After all, while lab testing only accounts for 3% to 5% of medical costs, it still accounts for about $70 billion in spending per year. Lowering the cost of any of the standard lab tests performed to near-nominal, as such technology could do, could be an important breakthrough. Not only would sophisticated home testing devices save money, they would free up labs to focus on higher-end testing, which is almost certainly a better use of staff time.
What's more, such technology stands a chance of reducing overtesting. Since 60% of total revenue from tests is generated by in-house hospital labs and private practices with their own onsite labs, these entities have an incentive to encourage testing even if it's not strictly required. Patient-driven testing eliminates this incentive.
These technologies do face some obstacles. First, for the moment it's unlikely that insurance companies will pay for home testing devices, leaving consumers to foot the bill. While nearly 20% of consumers have already shelled out for wearables, it's not clear whether paying another $200 or so for a "tricorder" will be a bridge too far.
The other issue is getting FDA approval. The leaders of Scanadu have told GigaOm that they don't want to release products until they get an FDA go ahead, which has created significant delays in their launching new devices.
But both of these problems are likely to take care of themselves over the next year or two. First, given how willing consumers have been to spend on wearables, the same subset of health-conscious buyers will probably begin picking up such devices eventually. Also, if home-testing apps and hardware save them a fortune on tests, insurers will undoubtedly begin paying for the devices over time. As for FDA approval, well, if the product is sound it will happen eventually.
Look for consumer home devices like the Scanadu Scout tricorder to appear wherever wearables are sold within the next year or two.
Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annezieger.