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As Comcast Talks Telehealth, Mobile Medical Ventures Accelerate Deployment

 Cable’s long-festering promises to plunge into health/wellness businesses have been superseded by rapid wireless initiatives. Cable is even largely invisible in the fast-growing delivery of such services via WiFi, despite operators’ vows to launch such capabilities. 

Ironically – or at least coincidentally – Comcast unveiled plans for a broadband health venture in California on the same day as the fifth annual mHealth Summit in suburban Washington, D.C,, offered an array of immediate wireless wellness and healthcare deployments , as well as future dreams.

The Comcast initiative with the California Telehealth Network, part of a new tech demonstration at Comcast’s Silicon Valley Innovation Center  on Tuesday seems like yet another well-intentioned promise for remote healthcare services as a new revenue source.
In contrast, the vitality at the mHealth event demonstrated how to cash in on the health sector, which constitutes (by various estimates) about 15% of America’s national budget.

But it’s not too late for cable to grab more of that infrastructure, perhaps by taking a few cues from the well-financed wireless adventurers. The trick will be finding ways to collaborate with the complicated health/medical/wellness community which – as seen at the mHealth event – is pushing digital health applications as diverse as smart pill bottles, real-time monitoring, local networking and remote medical delivery.

There are also the realities about the dictates of insurance companies, medical groups and civic activities as well of the role of Big Pharma, which many conference attendees acknowledged will become more involved in digital health delivery. 

To punctuate the scale of the digital health opportunity, reports emerged this week from Qualcomm, Intel and Parks Associates. All touted the appetite and need for digitally delivered health services.  (Indeed, if I have any disappointments about the mHealth Summit and trade show, it’s the focus on “mobile” rather than the broader “digital” health market. Many of the opportunities are not limited to wireless delivery. But when your biggest sponsors are Qualcomm, AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, the organizers understandably stick with “mobile.”)

Intel’s  “GlobalInnovation Barometer”  found that patients want health care technology that is customizable, as well as effective and efficient.  Despite concerns about health privacy, 84% of respondents said they would share their anonymous personal health data if it would lower their overall health care costs; 72% said they would willingly see a physician via videoconference; and more than 70% would use toilet sensors, prescription bottle sensors or swallowed monitors to provide physicians with personal health data, such as internal organ information. 

Qualcomm’s presentation at the mHealth Summit identified (unsurprisingly) “Mobile: the largest health and wellness platform” citing a 45% reduction in mortality rate for chronic disease patients using telehealth applications.  Rick Valencia, senior VP and generation of Qualcomm Life (filling in for CEO Paul Jacobs, whose flight to D.C. was snowed out) cited a projected mobile health market of up to $60 billion by 2015, with much of the growth coming from wearable technology such as sensors and fitness monitoring devices.    

The Parks Associates white paper "Connected Health Opportunities for Service Providers” evaluates the opportunities for broadband service providers in the connected health products and service market.  It identifies growing consumer interest in such services, fueled by aging baby boomers, health reforms and the expanding role of technology. The report cites broadband ubiquity, smartphone/tablet adoption and the use of health apps.

Policy and Products

A conference session on public policy predictably touched on privacy, confidentiality and accuracy of medical information, but (thanks to a Qualcomm moderator) focused on spectrum issues.  Specifically, the panelists discussed – but offered no forecasts – about how the FCC will handle spectrum allocation for healthcare services. 

The group reminded audiences that the Food and Drug Administration must approve medical devices and authorize equipment, including wired and wireless health devices.  The Federal Trade Commission is also likely to get involved the deployment and marketing of such devices, according to Russell Fox of the Mintz Levin law firm.

Fox and his co-panelists pointed out that the agencies have established an mHealth task force to coordinate policies affecting telehealth devices and services.  He emphasized that the FCC “has exhibited interest” in other sectors, such as rural healthcare, and he expects the commission, especially under activist chairman Tom Wheeler, to exercise its role as the “expert agency” in such policy-making about telehealth delivery.

In a fascinating turn, the rostrum discussion prompted an audience member to take a microphone during the Q&A segment: Matthew Quinn, recently appointed as director of healthcare initiatives at the FCC. 

Quinn emphasized that the “FCC is focused on interference,” especially if medical devices might interfere with other wireless signals.  The truncated dialogue raised the prospect of countless hurdles in telehealth development – casting the fast timetable into question.

Meanwhile, mHealth Summit’s exhibit hall, dominated by Qualcomm, Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless plus a large cluster of start-up stands in an “Innovations” sector (reminiscent of the CableNet pavilion at the annual NCTA Cable Show) showed how many big players are looking at telehealth delivery, especially wireless services. Alarm companies – another realm of interest for MSOs – were on hand, spotting opportunities to leverage their technologies for health monitoring.  American Tower (which builds broadcast and cell towers) was among the vendors promoting their abilities to build out connectivity in hospitals, campuses and other facilities in need of local area networking (mostly wirelessly) – another potential role for broadband providers. 

The 5,000 attendees at mHealth (about 20% more than last year, which was double the audience size from the prior year) further attest to the vitality of digital health services – not just mobile apps.

And in turn, that confirms the urgency for cable operators to find a way into the business.

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.