PharmExec Blog

Why the Smartwatch Should Make Time for Health

Smartwatches need health data to matter, writes Peter Houston.

Still getting used to the idea of a smartphone? Better be quick, the smartwatch is on its way … or maybe not if iOS is your tech platform of choice. Despite usual whirl of rumours that accompany any major product announcement from Apple, the much imagined iWatch will not sit alongside the iPod, iPhone and iPad range any time soon.

Apple has demurred for the time being, but there has been a real flurry of activity in the smartwatch market recently. Earlier this month, Samsung grabbed the headlines with its Galaxy Gear ‘fashion icon’, a smartwatch with a colour screen that shows alerts, run apps and can be used to make voice calls.

Peter Houston

Peter Houston

The mobile phone market leader’s shiny new device is unquestionably cool, but hardly revolutionary, especially when you realise it’s a “partner device” that has to be used with a Samsung phone or tablet. Basically, the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturer just introduced a funky new phone accessory.

Sony has been a little bit more egalitarian in its approach – its Smartwatch2 will connect to any android device, but it is still essentially a second screen for your existing smartphone. And at more than $200, a fairly expensive one at that.
None of the smartwatches out there are what you would call budget items; Qualcomm’s Toq is expected to retail at $300, roughly the same price as the Galaxy Gear.  And while they clearly love the idea of wearable technology, the tech reviewers are struggling to hide their disappointment with these watches; add-ons rather than standalone communications devices. The general consensus seems to be that the industry is stuck on ‘smart’ looking rather than ‘smart’ thinking.
Expectations for the Smartwatch market are relatively low, at least until someone develops the killer app and the conversation around must-have applications is all health-related.

Watches like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear support a number of apps that will appeal to fitness enthusiasts. The sheer marketing clout of companies like Sony and Samsung coupled with phone-watchconnectivity could see smartwatches giving fitness devices like the Nike Fuel Band and the Fitbit Flex, a real run for their money. But that’s not really a major advance on what phone-based fitness apps already do and probably not a good enough reason for a critical mass of consumers to spend their money on this new generation of watches.

Intriguing then that early in the day that Apple didn’t announce the iWatch, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of The Next Web technology blog, Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, wrote that he would be buying buy six iWatches when they are finally introduced. His logic went like this:

If Apple is going to release a smartwatch, it will be a revolutionary product in the same way that the iPod revolutionised music, the iPhone revolutionised mobile telephony and the iPad revolutionised computing.

Ahead of Apple’s press conference, Boris asked several people if they would be interested in buying the iWatch. The stock response was ‘No’, with people unable to see why they would need one. But Boris, committed to buying six – one for himself, and one each for his two kids, their mother and his parents.

He based his hypothetical spending spree on the idea that Apple wouldn’t introduce the iWatch unless it is revolutionary and for it to be revolutionary he thinks it will be wearable health and medical tracking device.

Notions that Apple is developing a device like this centre on the rumour that the company   has poached several scientists away from companies like AccuVein, C8 MediSensors, and Senseonics. These are people that know about sensors that measure body level information and pick up data that will give users, or their doctor, a snapshot of their health.

Boris imagines the device monitoring blood pressure, movement, temperature and a host of other parameters. “If Apple would be able to achieve something like this we would definitely see another revolution. It would be game changer for the medical profession.”

This maybe all seems a little bit Star Trek, until you see that the market for remote patient monitoring is forecast to double to more than $20 billion by 2016 according to a 2012 study by Kalorama Information. VC spending on remote monitoring has been put at over $100 million by Rock Health, a seed fund for digital health, with investors banking on legal and budgetary requirements forcing increased care for patients outside the hospital setting.

None of this means health-centric Smartwatch technology – even Apple’s — is a shoo in. Remote patient monitoring faces some big obstacles, from older patient’s reluctance to pick up unfamiliar technology, to a lack of standardisation on data and the ubiquitous difficulty in managing regulatory approval.

But if Apple is looking for another market to disrupt, smartwatches with a heavy healthcare focus would seem a better bet than just shifting people’s iPods from their pockets to their wrists.

Peter Houston is former Group Content Director for Advanstar Pharma Science. He is now an independent media consultant and founder of Flipping Pages.

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