Samsung and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) have doubled down on health and fitness tracking solutions that aggregate and analyze information from multiple sources and potentially share that data with physicians or other health care professionals. Google is expected to announce a similar platform at Google I/O next week.
It was inevitable once Samsung scheduled its Voice of the Body event days ahead of Apple's developer conference that the moves would be seen as the latest battle front of the so-called mobile platform wars or as a new turf war -- a mobile health platform war -- in its own right.
The natural tendency when any new category develops is to cast it in these terms of battle, and for proponents (and skeptics) of each company operating in the new space to use a range of data -- costs, feature set, market share, sales numbers, user base, or number of partner companies -- to predict or declare winners and losers. Think of Mac vs. PC, iOS vs. Android, Samsung vs. Apple, Office vs. iWork, Nintendo vs. Playstation, and Kindle vs. Nook as just a handful of examples. In almost any market that you look at, be it consumer, education, or enterprise, you can immediately see evidence of some type of platform war. So it's inevitable that we'll see end-to-end mobile digital health offerings discussed and disputed in these terms. What's different in this case, however, is that platform choices in mobile health are not entirely consumer-driven.
Health IT's role as kingmaker
In the industry of health care technology -- think of the vendors that create things like electronic health record systems and medical devices used in hospitals or clinics -- the customer isn't the individual receiving care. The customers are the doctors, hospital administrators, and health IT professionals. In large organizations particularly, the IT department and administration often makes the big buying decisions, with varying levels of input from the clinicians who will use these tools on a daily basis.
This presents an interesting dynamic. The emerging mobile health platforms will be marketed toward consumers. In the end, consumers will either buy into a particular platform or not. So how will health care IT influence the market?
The answer comes down to the ability for consumers to share data with their doctors, hospital, or other providers. That's where a lot of the value will be generated, particularly for users tracking and managing chronic conditions. Whether it is a custom app designed for a specific practice or hospital or an app that is part of a larger health IT solution like an electronic health record, the integration functionality will be built or purchased by the provider's health IT team.
So to some extent, the growth of these platforms is going to be dictated by health IT professionals and health IT vendors.
You probably missed it if you're not familiar with health care IT, but as I noted following Apple's HealthKit announcement two weeks ago, Epic's involvement as a HealthKit partner is a big, big deal.
A core part of Epic's business is building electronic health record systems and it owns a large chunk of that market -- the company claims that its systems cover 100 million individuals. As part of its EHR package, Epic offers a patient-facing website and mobile app called MyChart that lets patients access their records and related information.
When iOS 8 launches anyone who uses the MyChart app could be able to relay data from their iPhone to their health care provider(s).
How the U.S. government might tip the scales
While consumer choice is likely to be constrained by the existing health care IT industry, it won't be eclipsed completely. The federal government electronic health records (EHR) incentive program will also impact this emerging market.
That program requires providers to engage patients using online solutions and has usage targets that providers must meet. Any medical practice is going to want the widest net possible for facilitating those interactions, and that means they'll want the biggest selection of integrated mobile health platforms possible.
As a result, major health IT vendors like Epic will support multiple mobile health platforms. That should ensure some measure of patient choice.
The market will need time to evolve
It's unlikely that every platform will be supported by a wide swath of vendors on day one. Some vendors may actively sit out the next year or two to see which platforms gain traction. Others may start out supporting just one platform and build out support for others depending on how the platforms are evolving or which platforms their competitors are choosing to support.
There's also a big question about exactly which individual features of these platforms the vendors will support. This touches on an ongoing debate in the health IT about how to handle data generated by patients and their devices and apps. Some vendors might support a range of notifications to providers from patient devices or cloud services, while others may support just electronic submission basic set of data like daily blood glucose readings, effectively offering little more than a patient might record in a notebook and bring with them to an office visit.
Even if a wide range of capabilities is supported by a medical group's vendor of choice, there's no guarantee that individual doctors or practices will want to use them.
While the health platforms rolled out over the next six months could truly revolutionize health care, but it's likely to be a few years before we can judge any of these platforms as successful or not. Likewise, it will take as long to see exactly how health care will change -- probably in ways we can't even predict today.
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Ryan Faas has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.