As mobile health becomes a standard way of doing business in the healthcare industry, the market is becoming attractive not only to caffeine-driven app startups but also the big players in the technology industry.
Just a few days ago, in fact, IBM joined a partnership between Apple Inc. and industry-leading EMR vendor Epic Systems. This follows an Apple announcement in June that the next generation of its mobile operating system, iOS 8, will offer the new HealthKit API, which will allow health and fitness services to access shared health information in one place.
Apple has worked to plant its flag in mobile health since striking an alliance with Epic around the EMR firm's Haiku app in 2010. And since then it's stuck deals involving Fitbit, Withings and Epic's MyChart. Now, with IBM joining Apple and Epic, observers seem to expect that the three will dominate enterprise mobility, with IBM offering secure messaging, analytics and mobile integration.
Some of my colleagues in the healthcare press seem very impressed with these moves, suggesting if not saying outright that mainstream healthcare IT players are about to have the mobile health business wrestled away from them. It certainly seems to be the tech giants' intention to lead the market. In fact, members of the triumvirate say they see their effort as ultimately leading to a new standard platform in the mHealth market, one accessed by both large health systems and consumers.
It ain't necessarily so
But count me as completely unconvinced. I think those who see the tech giants as guaranteed winners are dead wrong. Certainly, when companies the size Apple and IBM and health IT giants like Epic join the party, they're going to have an impact on the industry. But my take is that for the foreseeable future, mobile health will be dominated by small, agile companies that can adapt quickly as clinicians and healthcare institutions gradually decide how to deploy technology.
Part of the reason I'm so skeptical that these giants can take over something as fluid as the mobile market is that at least two of them—Apple and Epic—have made their fortunes by making their own rules, setting their own standards and enforcing them inflexibly. IBM may have more of a consulting mindset and a willingness to explore new territory, but it's still one of the world's biggest business bureaucracies, whereas mobile health is still a one-to-one, personal market where needs change almost daily.
Sure, Apple, Epic and IBM may have identified a real need in developing an enterprise mobility platform for healthcare. Standardizing that side of the mobile revolution probably makes sense, for reasons that include imposing security controls on these free riding devices. And these companies can certainly help manufacturers on the health and fitness side scale up to say, deploying them across an entire large employer population.
Still, I think that for quite some time to come, the heavy lifting and innovation in mHealth will be coming from small to medium-sized startups with a strong intuitive understanding of what providers need right now. The mobile health industry may need the 10,000-pound gorillas at some point, but right now they'll just get in the way.