3 Consumer Health Trends Investors Need to Watch

One of our main tasks as investors is to keep an eye on explosive, emerging trends -- and one area that certainly qualifies is the marriage between technology and health care. The annual mHealth Summit near Washington, D.C., focuses specifically on mobile tech and health, and I always find it fruitful for investing ideas.

This year, I was fortunate enough to chat with Jack Young, who heads up the $100 million Qualcomm Life Fund at Qualcomm's (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) venture arm, Qualcomm Ventures. With its technology embedded in much of mobile communication, Qualcomm is especially interested in digital health.

During our talk, Jack highlighted three areas investors should keep an eye on in this sector.

1. Fitness is fueling fast growth
The first involves wellness and fitness, best represented with fitness trackers like Nike's (NYSE: NKE  ) FuelBand and -- a company Jack has invested in – FitBit.

It is indeed just the beginning of this trend. It's a great example of how Nike, which has been involved in fitness for decades through footwear and apparel, is able to extend its brand into the digital age. Besides several versions of the Nike FuelBand, the company also offers heart-rate sensors, sports watches, and the Nike+ iPod, which integrates with the watches and other sensors to measure your running pace, distance, etc. You can bet Nike's R&D team has much more up its sleeve for the coming months.

2. Managing chronic diseases
The next area investors should look to is where mobile technology helps manage chronic disease, which eats up an astounding amount of the total health care dollars in the world.

An example I found interesting at the mHealth Summit is how Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) is helping fund a program designed to ensure tuberculosis patients follow their treatment regimen. The disease is curable if patients follow their strict regimen for six months, but this has always required health care workers to drive to patients' homes to ensure compliance.

Dr. Richard Garfein of the University of California San Diego's School of Medicine developed a system that uses smartphone technology. The patient simply sets up the phone, turns on an app, and videos himself taking and swallowing the proper pills. The video is automatically encrypted and uploaded to UCSD. It not only saves a significant amount of money and time, but patients are much more likely to stick with a much less intrusive system.

It's surprising to see a telecom like Verizon involved in health care, but its health IT practice is a multibillion-dollar segment led by chief medical officer Dr. Peter Tippett. Verizon helps facilitate the safe and secure exchange of health care information, and its long-term vision involves accelerating innovation in this space. Its customers include hospital systems, insurance companies, and large pharma companies across the globe. 

3. Serving the senior demographic
Finally, we move to a trend we've all heard about: serving the ballooning senior demographic. Jack's remarks about this are quite interesting, especially how the problem (or opportunity) is compounded by the dwindling number of caretakers for this age group.

As Jack says, technology is going to have to come to the rescue here. Remote monitoring -- anything that can help doctors interact with patients without having to be in the same location -- is a big part of this solution. iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT  ) dipped an inanimate toe in this water last year with its RP-VITA robot, developed in a partnership with InTouch Health. The RP-VITA allows your doctor to consult with you remotely -- something that could help lower costs and improve health care.

As with Nike above, this is a good example of iRobot leveraging its technological core competence into related fields, with the goal of opening up new revenue streams.

Likewise, HealthSpot provides "pods" at some Walgreen and CVS locations that serve as in-store health care clinics. These pods connect remotely with doctors and other health providers, and since they're inside Walgreens and CVS drugstores, there's an added layer of convenience for filling prescriptions and getting a pharmacist's help.

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