In a quest to marry medicine, technology, UPMC investing millions into mobile wellness tools
By Alex Nixon
Published: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
At a UPMC lab in Bakery Square, you won't find technicians analyzing blood samples, human tissue or medical x-rays. They are busy working on ways the company can use technology for patient care.
The hospital system is preparing to release its latest smartphone app next month — one that would allow users to quickly see the nearest UPMC urgent care center and up-to-the-minute wait times for each center.
UPMC is not unique in its quest to marry medicine with technology. Developers have produced tens of thousands of health and wellness apps as digitally connected consumers look for new tools to manage their health.
Although UPMC's latest app, which is known to its developers as Care Now, is relatively simple, apps are becoming more sophisticated. Some allow people to take blood-pressure readings, for example, or perform other functions once reserved for the doctor's office.
The growing complexity of these apps and their use in medicine is drawing scrutiny from government regulators. Although the vast majority of apps pose little risk to consumers, the Food and Drug Administration this month said that those that turn smartphones into devices such as heart or blood pressure monitors should be regulated as medical equipment.
“We're all waiting for their guidelines,” said Missy Krasner, an executive in residence at Morgenthaler Ventures, a Menlo Park, Calif. venture capital firm. Krasner said there's concern among high-tech investors and developers that overly strict FDA rules could stifle innovation.
FDA officials said they have already approved 75 of these “mobile medical applications,” including 25 in the last year. Agency officials estimate that 500 million smartphone users worldwide will use some type of health app by 2015.
The pace of health-app development is accelerating as more people buy mobile devices and discover digital tools that can track calories eaten, steps walked and perform a variety of other health-related functions.
Despite the increasing popularity of health apps — there are more than 10,000 on iTunes — experts say the industry faces challenges of keeping users engaged past a few months and producing consistent revenue and profits.
“The biggest issue is engagement,” Krasner said. “There's certainly no lack of selection.”
While millions of people may have downloaded several apps to their phones, most aren't active users for very long, Krasner said. They lose interest or move on to a different app quickly.
“I think we're still waiting to find the mobile apps that will have that big-market appeal,” she said.
Mass appeal could equal big bucks to tech developers.
The market for mobile health apps could be worth $60 billion by 2015, according to GBI Research, a United Kingdom market research firm. But for companies and their investors to cash in on that potential, health apps need to provide “additional advantages to traditional routes of health care communication, such as face-to-face with health-care professionals; improvements in safety and effectiveness, or additional health, economic and societal benefits,” GBI said in a December report.
Several companies in Pittsburgh, which has become known for a burgeoning technology community and already has a large and established medical industry, are trying to find that successful model.
Among them is PHRQL (pronounced “freckle”), an Oakland startup that is creating a range of apps for pharmacists and nutritionists in grocery stores, drug stores and hospitals to help their patients better manage diseases like diabetes. The company was formed in 2011 by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.
BodyMedia is a Downtown maker of wearable body monitors that interact with its apps to track fitness, calories and sleep. The company was acquired in April by San Francisco-based Jawbone in April for $110 million.
UPMC, the largest hospital system in Western Pennsylvania, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year into information technology development, including apps, as it not only tries improve the health of its patients but also find new revenue streams.
The health system employs more than 100 software engineers and other technology-related workers at a center in Bakery Square, the Larimer complex where search giant Google Inc. has offices. It plans to hire at least 80 more over the next year, said Daniel Drawbaugh, the health system's chief information officer.
Health care information technology “is all moving to mobile,” Drawbaugh said.
In 2011, developers at UPMC's Bakery Square center created EMS Navigator, an app for emergency medical workers that helps ambulance drivers find the nearest hospital emergency room and provides trauma protocols and a medication dosage calculator. The free app has been downloaded 20,000 times and has 3,500 registered users, said Rebecca Kaul, the center's president.
Care Now will be free, but the point is to create better engagement with patients, said Dan Shoenthal, the center's director of product management.
“It's part of a series of products we're building out around the care experience,” he said.
That includes a redesigned website, www.upmc.com, that will be optimized for use on mobile phones and include a range of new functions, such as a self-diagnostic tool and a telemedicine feature that allows patients to video chat with urgent-care workers, he said.
Many large health care companies offer free apps as a way to increase customer loyalty, such as drug store chains, insurers and hospital chains, Krasner said.
But most other apps seek to make money in several ways, she said. One is to offer a basic version of the app for free and then try to upsell the user on a premium version. Other strategies are to charge subscription fees or sell advertising on the app, she said.
While some app makers are profitable, she said, “we're still waiting for a company that can actually go big.”
The problem, Krasner argues, is that no company has figured out a mobile app that puts all the possible health information that individuals can collect about themselves, along with all the data that doctors and insurers collect into one place. And then make it compelling and social.
Health apps “can't be like your credit report,” she said. “It needs to be baked into the daily tasks that consumers are doing every day ... like email or social media.”
Anind Dey, an associate professor in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, predicts that significant advancements will be made in coming years to make mobile health apps more useful, engaging and beneficial to a person's health.
There is tremendous demand from America's large aging population, who are technology savvy and concerned about their long-term health, for greater access to their personal health data, Dey said.
It's only a matter of time before a technology company gets it right.
“With those two trends, the future generation of (mobile health) technology will be very successful,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed. Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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