Digital health was the fastest growing industry segment at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, which featured more than 200 exhibitors hawking the newest wristband activity trackers, digital weight scales, mobile phones for seniors and personal emergency response systems to help us when we've fallen and can't get up.
But the biggest health story at the CES was that United Healthcare had the largest single piece of real estate on the floor of the digital health area of the exhibit hall, about the same size as Whirlpool's space in the connected home area.
What does it mean that the nation's largest health insurance plan made such a big bet at a convention that features the latest in smartphones, flat screen TVs and self-driving automobiles?
It means United is embracing health as part of a larger consumer ecosystem, where people -- patients -- will play starring roles in self-care and caregiving for loved ones.
United's booth was organized into pods representing different connected and digital health programs. One of the most interesting ones was the health plan's alliance with KONAMI, the videogame maker of Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). This new version is designed for up to 42 students in a classroom, where teachers can monitor students' vital signs, including body mass index, calories burned and steps taken. With this venture, the health plan comes together with the videogame developer in the growing field of exer-gaming, targeting kids, whose public health profile has declined in the past decade with increasing rates of obesity and risk for heart disease.
In addition to DDR, United's CES booth also featured demonstrations of:
- Health4Me, a mobile application that helps plan members access benefit information and a provider director;
- myHealthcare Cost Estimator, a transparency tool for comparing provider costs and quality; and
- Two programs targeting elders and younger patients -- Senior Digital Journey and Community Rewards.
Beyond the booth, United's Reed Tuckson, chief of medical affairs, was also featured on several panels, including the kickoff discussion by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, which launched its first heath app, called GPS for the Soul, which focused on stress reduction.
Another health plan, WellPoint, was featured on a telemedicine panel at the conference. WellPoint now reimburses for telehealth encounters, which the health plan believes provide their enrollees with high quality, lower-cost care in more accessible, convenient settings. A new telehealth provider, HealthSpot, was a prominent exhibitor at the 2013 CES, highlighting its health kiosk that looks like a Star Trek holodeck and is powered by TelADoc "inside" to enable private and secure heath consults between a patient and a remote licensed physician.
But it was the 200-plus vendors exhibiting in the digital health aisles of the CES that got the most mass media attention. They featured the newest versions of activity trackers, which go well beyond traditional pedometer functionality. In addition to steps taken and calories burned, which were the first features in quantified self devices, these smaller and smaller gadgets have begun to incorporate sleep and heart functions in streamlined, more passive designs.
As base sensor technology morphs according to Moore's Law, getting cheaper and more sophisticated, consumers can monitor a growing array of physiological parameters. While most wearable devices continue to be housed on black rubbery wristbands, some are being marketed in earbuds (such as the Valencell PerformTek heart monitor incorporated into iRiver's headset), t-shirts and smart fabrics (like the MC10 skull cap which senses hits to the head to warn for concussions), blinged-out versions such as the BodyMedia metallic band, Misfit Wearbkes Shine disc (that is designed like a slick Movado watch face) and multi-colored Fitbit trackers.
The unknown variable remains: Just how many heath citizens are ready for self-quantification? And how will consumer-generated data get populated into patients' electronic health records? Meaningful use Stage 3 sets the stage for doing this, at least according to HITECH incentive provisions. For now, most sensor-generated consumer health data live in the cloud and might marry to other peoples' data for benchmarking, but can't yet integrate into our own EHRs.
I return to the importance of United Healthcare's and WellPoint's attendance at the CES. We've entered the consumer-driven, value-based health benefit era, where people enrolled in these plans are facing higher deductibles and more artfully designed financial nudges to motivate self-care, disease prevention and wellness. While consumer electronics devices will enable self-health, we should remember the underlying meaning of health growing at the CES: not so much about the shiny new things, but how to motivate and inspire sustained healthy behavior.