What next for healthcare apps?

Healthcare apps have exploded in the last few years, as people globally turn to apps more and more to manage just about every aspect of their lives, with health on all fronts a key priority. It’s estimated that there are nearly 30,000 apps exclusively for patients and professionals alone – which is a staggering amount. 

Health apps have understandably grown in popularity, as people are more in tune with and interested in their own wellbeing. Access to data and insight relating to movement, exercise, calories, heart rate and more is now literally at your fingertips.  

We’re now also seeing a boom in mental and female health apps, all helping people to address their own wellbeing and access information on sometimes taboo or difficult to discuss subjects. Calm now has 40m users, claiming to amass one every second, whilst period tracker Flow is used by women across 30 countries. 

And then there are apps to help other people’s development. Huckleberry or The Wonder Weeks are specifically designed to help monitor growth and development of babies and young children, providing fascinating insight into the development cycles of individual babies, and, they claim, helping parents to understand what is happening to their children (and when a new parent might expect a few hours of undisturbed sleep…!)

Over the last few months though, I think we have seen a step change in how people are interacting with apps dedicated to medical advice and guidance. Whether it’s apps like Activate care (previously act.md) to help communities of professionals to deliver better healthcare outcomes, or clotMD, an app specifically designed to help patients and professionals monitor dosage levels and timings of warfarin (a blood thinning medicine), we are seeing more businesses and patients understanding the impact that technology can have on their day to day lives.

Recent research shows that more than half of brits go to a GP just to get reassurance from what they’ve gathered from digital sources. The GP is no longer our first line of healthcare – instead it’s browser searches and apps. During the lockdown in the UK, I signed up to Babylon Health as my GP and it was an incredibly liberating experience. No queues, no waiting room, and no travel. Just a video call with a doctor or HCP when I needed it, from my home. It was great.

This experience got me thinking, where do healthcare apps go next? What can we expect on the horizon?

New categories – Wearable technology combined with large scale data processing allows personal data to be linked together like never before. We’ll see large healthcare businesses starting to work ever closer with insurance providers and fitness/wellness businesses to start disrupting traditional categories and creating entirely new services, providing 1:1 experiences, cover and products. These will obviously be supported by apps, and as we’ve seen in the financial services sector over the last few years, I am expecting these to provide some really interesting ways to manage lifestyle and health choices. 

Telehealth – If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t rely on face to face meetings. Instant access to professionals will become much more prevalent as the demand continues to increase. With all age groups now more comfortable with Zoom and other video calls, it’s only a matter of time that confidence in this technology changes expectation and behaviour in other categories. Babylon Health is already leading in this area, but I believe we’ll see public sector services also embracing this technology at some point soon.

Acceptance – Duncan Banks, lecturer in biomedical sciences at the Open University, has been investigating the use of health trackers and reports that patients over-55, a demographic traditionally resistant or slower to embrace technology, have embraced them when used as part of a wider treatment. It’s been estimated that devices such as this could cut NHS costs by 60% per patient. Will wearables be a final piece in the digital puzzle that will help revolutionise public healthcare? I think so.

Virtual Reality – Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth hospital has experimented with the use of VR in recovery from complex limb injuries, with cycling and running experiences reporting good results. VR headsets are becoming cheaper and more widely available, so in the coming years these will become an obvious method of managing our day-to-day health. 3D rendering apps like Capture are putting very powerful technology in the palm of our hands and I would expect that these will be utilised to help triage issues before people make the journey in to see a specialist. This will improve efficiency, and accuracy, which can only be a good thing. 

Involvement from consumer brands – The convergence of consumer brands with healthcare continues to drive innovation. Bose recently acquired Hush Technology to develop noise-masking sleep earbuds to help the 100 million Americans who have sleep deprivation issues, and in the coming years, it’ll be perfectly common to see consumer brands, from Sony to Evian, looking to take a more active role in healthcare. These will all be supported by apps and provide new data points to help improve and optimise our own lives.

Stepping outside of the worlds of apps for a moment, I think we’ll see real innovation happening in the DTC space, as large health and pharma brands wake up to the need, and growing demand, for DTC experiences. There are a vast number of untapped categories here, often taboo, or embarrassing purchases that people don’t like buying publicly. 

But most large corporations are too afraid to challenge their relationships with their customer – the retailers. They think it’s easier to keep doing the same thing, even though, in reality, the brands are educating retailers about the consumer opportunity, rather than innovating and securing their own business for the future. 

This is something that Duracell and Pampers have experienced first hand. Amazon kept an eye on both categories, including the buying habits, the behaviours, the audience, and the products themselves. All of the insight Amazon gathered has been used to create and develop their own products in each category, to sell on the platform they already own, to an audience they hold all of the data on. This should serve as a warning to all manufacturers and brands, especially when you consider the recent incredible growth Amazon has had throughout the pandemic.

I am hoping that we’ll see large corporations utilise the opportunities they have to be bold and forward thinking enough to disrupt themselves. They have the audience insight, the products, and budgets to make some huge gains here. But are they brave enough? 

In our experience the answer is yes, sometimes, but the corporate hoops that ambitious teams need to jump through can really restrict innovation. This needs to change, because if it doesn’t, someone else will disrupt these businesses, however established they may be. 

Infact, someone is probably already thinking about it. 

Rob Bennett, CEO of creative technology agency Rehab.

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