What are the big companies up to in digital health?
One of the big trends right now in technology, and wearables like fitness trackers in particular, is digital health. Nearly every big tech company is looking at a way to get in on your health – to help you take better control of it.
However, each of these companies is also going about health in different ways. Naturally, each of them is leveraging its own unique products and business strategies in their pursuit of dominating the health games.
What exactly are these companies doing though? How could it affect your future? We’ve put a handy guide to all of that right here, take a look.
Samsung’s wearable strategy is two-pronged. It’s got the mainstream wearables, like your Gear Sport and Gear Fit2 Pro, but it’s also got a lot of experimentations in digital health. This is stuff that’s way far down the line, but the company wants to show off anyway.
The most famous example of this is the Samsung Simband. It was a reference wearable that was packed with sensors that could track blood pressure, skin temperature, sweat production, blood volume, heart rate, and more. It was actually a reaction to rumors of Apple creating a high-tech health wearable.
That turned out to not be the case, so Samsung turned its attention to its Gear line instead. However, it also turns out that the Simband lives on. Dr. Francis Ho, Samsung’s head of digital health, says the company still plugs away on the project. In fact, the Simband is still a central figure in Samsung’s health plans.
The body speaks
Samsung’s larger health plan for digital health is an idea it calls “Voice of the Body.” The goal of the idea is basically to make it as easy as possible for the human body to communicate health information via sensors. This could be as simple as heart rate to as complicated as the food you eat and your sleep quality.
This idea would go beyond Samsung’s wearables, too, as Samsung is a massive company that makes all kinds of products. It has refrigerators and washers and driers and all kinds of smart home products. It would combine data from all of these, plus its mobile products, to give you a full look at your health. Eventually, Ho says the goal is to be able to detect or predict cancer.
As Roman Llamas, IDC research manager for wearables and mobile phones, points out, attaining a goal to predict cancer is much harder than it sounds. There are multiple types of cancers with different predictors and flags that a device, and corresponding software, would have to learn how to identify.
Regardless, Samsung’s not just looking to communicate your body’s desires and needs to you though, it’s also working on wearables that could improve how people see the world – literally. At CES 2018, we tried out the Relúmĭno smartglasses, which could help people with glaucoma, myopia and other visual impairments to better see.
Everyone is on the edge of their seat waiting how Apple movies into digital health. The Cupertino company hasn’t shied away from its desire to do things in the health space, but it has yet to show everyone what its grander vision is.
Thanks to lots of reports and building rumors over the past couple of years, we can read the tea leaves to check where Apple sees its future. The first step, naturally, is your wrist. Apple has announced a partnership with Stanford Universityon a study that will explore how the Apple Watch could be used to detect atrial fibrillation.
That partnership is a natural evolution for Apple. The company first jumped into digital health with both Apple Health and HealthKit, which allowed fitness and health data better access to you – as well as a place that pools all your health data in one spot. More recently, there’s both ResearchKit and CareKit, ways for health researchers and doctors, respectively, to better connect with patients.
A glucose smart band?
That’s only the beginning though, as we know Apple is interested in a more medical-grade Apple Watch via its many patents. We even know it’s explored the idea of smart bands, kind of like the KardiaBand, which puts an electrocardiogram monitor on your Apple Watch band.
There’s even been talk of Apple looking into diabetes via a smart band. It’s no secret that Tim Cook has been testing real-time glucose monitoring with his Apple Watch. It’s been a major focus of Apple for quite some time, and a smart band that can track glucose has been rumored from Apple for some time. However, it may still be a few years away.
Truthfully, the smart band idea seems like a way for Apple to work around FDA regulations. By focusing on smart health bands, Apple doesn’t have to stick the Watch into FDA regulatory processes, which would hold up the wearable. Well, at least if it can’t go through the FDA’s new fast lane which is being set up specifically for companies like Apple, Fitbit and Samsung.
Off the wrist
Apple might even be going beyond the wrist. For as long as AirPods have existed there have been murmurs that there was a version of the popular wireless headphones in the works with serious health tracking. In fact, there are patents pointing to wireless headphones from Apple with galvanic skin response and EKG.
All of these moves, and possible moves, are Apple’s baby steps toward a larger goal in digital health: to provide a full healthcare solution. Apple has been in talks with both Crossover Health and One Medical, which would give it in an inroad to primary care. You know, actual doctors and clinics.
Apple has always wanted to control its services end-to-end, and it’s likely Apple’s ambitions in health are the same. We can surmise that Apple’s ultimate goal in digital health is not only to use devices to get your medical data, but then to actually use this data with its own doctors to get you the best possible care. From wearables to actual treatment. Of course, it’s unclear when or if Apple can actually do this, but it’s certainly something the company is interested in.
Llamas says despite Apple’s rumored interest in actual treatment, the move doesn’t make sense for the company. He says most of the companies peeking into digital health are still looking for ways they can get involved. This is one avenue Apple is looking at.
“Apple is a computing hardware and software company,” he tells Wareable. “If you’re going to get into healthcare management that’s an entirely different ball of wax to play with.” Instead, he notes Apple could partner up with insurance and health care companies to distribute Apple Watch, as it does with Aetna.
Way back in 2016, the Microsoft Band 2 was the most innovative wearable on the market. It wasn’t exactly a looker, but it did boast some impressive metrics at the time. It was loaded with sensors and feature rich at a time where competitors weren’t.
Alas, Microsoft cancelled the Band 2. Instead, it turned away from wearables, cancelling a planned Xbox smartwatch, too. Microsoft took its business-first strategy, which it employed for HoloLens, and applied it to its wearable and digital health programs.
The company decided to license out its portfolio of wearable and health patents out to Casio for them to build some kind of smartwatch, which is surely in development somewhere (maybe we’ll see it in the coming year?).
Other than licensing, Microsoft’s most successful digital health venture has been HealthVault, a platform to record and share health data. However, there might be some turbulence here as Microsoft recently canned its Insights app for HealthVault.
HealthVault fits in better with Microsoft’s larger company vision. Llamas says the company has been “very loud and open” about its plans to be a cloud-first company. HealthVault is a way for Microsoft to get involved in digital health using the cloud, and any meaningful Microsoft effort in digital health would more likely than not involve the cloud.
That’s not to say Microsoft won’t try other things. It’s dabbled in experiments like the Emma Watch, which can help those with Parkinson’s write again. It’s also investing in AI to sift through research data so that doctors and researchers can better find a cure for cancer.
The big name in fitness trackers is trying to live with one foot in the future and one foot in the present. That’s perhaps the best way to explain the Fitbit Ionic, the company’s latest wearable. The Ionic sports a “red light” blood oxygen sensor, which will eventually allow Fitbit to detect sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation.
The thing you need to understand about Fitbit is that, compared with the likes of Apple and Samsung, it’s limited. It mostly makes wearable devices that live on your wrist. If it wants to make a big splash in the digital health space it needs to do so on your wrist.
Fitbit has done a good job of putting together a platform for businesses that can help employers measure the health of employees. It’s also teamed up with the National Institute of Health to be a part of a long-term study to see how lifestyle changes can make a difference to personal health.
The Sano investment
Anyway, Fitbit wants to use that space to try to find out as much about you as possible. It’s why it’s inching toward being able to detect things like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, and it doesn’t want to stop there either. Like many other tech companies, real-time glucose tracking is on on its mind.
It’s no surprise that the first company that Fitbit ever investedin was Sano, who makes semi-invasive patches that can track your glucose and keep track of your health in ways other wearables can’t. Fitbit sees this as an investment that could eventually lead to an exclusive deal, where you could link up your Sano data with its wearables.
Or, you know, it could just outright buy Sano in the future. Why have someone wear a thing on their wrist when a small (relatively) painless patch can take care of all your health metrics for you?
The big question for Fitbit, Llamas says, is what medical ailments they’re going to tackle outside of diabetes, atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea. While Fitbit sees itself as the company closest to getting that data to the mainstream, every other wearable health company in the world is racing toward the same things.
Fitbit is presenting itself as the champion of these metrics in the future, and its attempting to use that presentation to embolden its digital health platform and ambitions, making itself viable to insurance partners in the future. Fitbit can get there, but only if users come along for the ride.
Google’s big digital health strategy is a bit spread out. There’s Google proper, which runs Android and, by extension, Google Fit. There’s also Verily, which is Google’s sister company under the larger Alphabet umbrella.
Google Fit is the search giant’s answer to Apple Health. It’s a place where all your health data can be stored and looked at, though in our estimation it’s not as fully featured as Apple Health – or even Samsung Health. Llamas says when he looks at what Google’s doing with Android Wear and Google Fit he wonders where they’re going with it.
They really feel like two technologies and platforms left out in the cold by Google. So it’s not hard to tell that Google (or, erm, Alphabet’s) heart lies in other digital health initiatives.
Verily Life Sciences has been working on the Study Watch for a while. It’s a smartwatch with an e-Ink display that passively collects all sorts of health data, from heart rate to electrodermal activity and inertial movements. It also comes with enough storage to house a week’s worth of health data.
The entire point of capturing this much health data is to help power Google’s algorithms, which – like Microsoft – are all about using machine learning and AI to empower predictive medicine. The more Verily understands about patients and conditions via data, the more it can help predict things like cancer and other terrible diseases.
The wearable question
When it comes to wearables, however, Alphabet isn’t just down with Android Wear or watches for studies. It’s also working on experiments like a pair of contact lenses that detect glucose.
That project is also being put on hold. The lenses were supposed to deploy for human testing back in 2016, but that was delayed. It’s likely that the technical challenges of creating contact lenses that can detect glucose are just incredibly complicated and need some smoothing out before they’re ready to test on humans.
It’s unclear when these contact lenses could make it back to testing, but Verily has doubled its headcount in the past two years, ballooning up to about 500 employees. It’s definitely not the last we’ve heard of Alphabet’s digital health ambitions.
Amazon is the big question mark. The company is in the retail business. It’s popularity as an online shopping destination isn’t in question, and it’s found newfound dominance in the smart home with its Echo devices. Alexa, its smart assistant, has found cultural relevance right up there with Siri.
The company is aggressively moving toward a new paradigm though, and that’s health. There have been rumors for a while that the company has been looking to start up a pharmacy, which makes a lot of sense. It’s already taken on all sorts of retailers, why not jump into becoming an online pharmacy.
It seems like a question that even Amazon hasn’t figured out. Llamas notes that Amazon is one of the biggest retailers worldwide. “How do they bring digital solutions to people?” he asks. “If they could notice buying habits of a customer it shouldn’t be too far fetched to say you know maybe they make a recommendation to get a certain wearable to monitor my health.”
It’s still unclear how Amazon’s budding digital health strategy will tie into wearables, as it doesn’t yet many any other than a rumored pair of smartglasses. However, the company is looking to make Alexa HIPAA compliant, which could pave the way for her relaying information about your health.
Perhaps this is a part of a larger telemedicine initiative. Maybe it’s all about selling you pharmaceuticals. Or maybe it’s the first step into a larger embrace of wearables. It’s hard to tell, but we do know that Amazon’s interested.