With all four of the major mobile tech companies releasing their own exclusive health services, 2014 has become a bit of a muscle show for the tech giants. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung have all released standalone apps for health and fitness and, with the exception of the Apple Watch, due for release in early 2015, have wearables that function in tandem with their software.
Why this sudden interest in an industry that was previously the preserve of personal trainers and health gurus? First and foremost, because the technology is there. Mobile sensors provide the ability to detect proximity, motion, both direct and ambient light, moisture, temperature and direction, to name but a few. And these capabilities can be easily used to track a litany of medical variables, such as ECG, blood pressure, glucose, mood, heart rate / HRV, fatigue and many other biomarkers.
In an age of Quantified Self Help, the step towards mobile health services may feel like a natural one but it nonetheless represents an important mental shift. We may be willing to bank through our mobiles but are we ready to entrust them with monitoring a heart condition? And while precedence, of course, suggests that eventually the answer will be ‘yes’ there is likely to be enough opposition in the medical community to make the assimilation of mobile health services no easy ride.
Early adopters will see this as a shame – and they are right. It takes only a cursory glance at what Apple and Microsoft are doing in this field to begin to get very excited indeed. Apple’s HealthKit, for example, focuses on coordinating available heath and fitness apps, extracting and aggregating your data in an easy-to-use mobile application. It acts as a sort of digital conductor, telling devices and apps when and how to share data with other devices and apps without ever storing sensitive information. The list of apps that integrate with HealthKit is ever increasing and includes dedicated programs for fitness, health and nutrition. Recipe site Yummly has been quick to integrate, sending information on your daily calorific intake to HealthKit.
Microsoft Health Service is a cloud-based service that instead places emphasis on gathering data from all of your apps and peripheries to apply its machine learning capability. Working in tandem with the Shackle, Microsoft’s foray into the smartwatch market, it analyzes your fitness and non-fitness data, it can provide sophisticated and highly intuitive advice and lifestyle coordination. For example, having learned over time that your blood sugar levels drop at a certain time of day, the service will give you a reminder to have a snack a little beforehand or recommend adjustments for your last meal.
The success of these services, however, depends on much more than app and device coordination – to effect genuine change, both must rely upon the involvement of medical professionals receptive to using the data they provide. Remote-patient monitoring platforms that enable doctors to monitor their patients’ vitals without the need for a visit, for example, would save time for patients and doctors alike – not to mention the implications for research.
Yet despite some tentative steps towards working together (Britain’s NHS, for example, is a third party data provider for Apple’s HealthKit) medical professionals remain concerned around issues of accountability. And it’s not hard to see why. A mobile may have sophisticated built-in sensors but it cannot yet be classified as a medical device. And until it can, the medical profession can only depend on it at its hazard.