While the number of healthcare technology products is increasing every day, it is apps linked especially to physical exercise and well-being that are proving to be the real innovation drivers. How far will these tools really change the way the traditional health sector works?

Well-being apps mean that “the doctor is no longer the only one in the know.”

Interview with Vincent Mangematin, Senior Professor at the Department of Management and Technology at the Grenoble School of Management , Grenoble, France, on the publication of a dissertation pertaining to new health markets, pointing up the differences between e-health and well-being applications, which he coordinated.

L’Atelier: What’s the difference between traditional e-health tools and what you call ‘well-being’ apps?

Vincent Mangematin: The term e-health mainly covers the use of digital technologies by medical practitioners, for example electronic health records, the French PMSI programme to bring information systems into the health sector, and online medical data transfer. We’re talking here about heavy centralised computerisation which requires access rights to the data. E-health tools are mainly used between healthcare professionals; they aren’t ‘connected’ to the patient. The research paper which I’ve been coordinating examines a trend which as yet has no clear label, which we might describe as ‘well-being applications’. The features of these well-being apps respond to a more holistic demand from people regarding their health, a space in which these days the medical profession plays only a functional role. In this more general context, the doctor is no longer the only one who is ‘in the know’.

You divide these well-being applications into three categories...

Yes, that’s right. We’ve identified three types of applications in this area. First, there’s already a wide range of smartphone apps on the market. They gather personal data which enables the user for instance to measure his/her performance during sports activities – the distance covered, calories burned etc – or measure your sleep patterns. Secondly, electronics specialists such as Withings in France are taking a major slice of this market. Withings’ connected scales can serve as a true biometric device as the device knows everything about you. Using an activity tracker linked via Bluetooth to your smartphone, it can track your weight, body mass, heart rate, and if necessary suggest that you take more – or less – physical exercise, and so on.  Last but not least, all the websites and blogs that focus predominantly on health and well-being enable a medical patient to access information, and to benchmark treatments, care systems and even doctors. All these tools are giving power back to ordinary people.

These apps seem in the main to focus on physical activity. What sort of medical conditions can actually be treated by well-being apps?

Well, that’s right, they’re not just for medical patients. They enable people to take preventive steps against becoming ill and so they’re also for people who are currently in good health. The most used apps are those centring on sports activities – the aim being to improve well-being and manage one’s health on a personal basis; also apps to do with sex, that touch on a person’s most intimate concerns which are sometimes difficult to discuss with a doctor; pregnancy – that’s a time when such apps can prove very useful; and also apps dealing with diet. Basically these are all areas that the medical profession doesn’t deal with particularly well today. Then there’s also prevention of cardio-vascular disease, conditions such as sleeplessness, and general pain conditions such as back pain and headaches.

Given this new orientation, how do you see the health scene, the way the health sector works, in the near future?

The starting point for health treatment is changing. At the moment, the entry gate is a person’s General Medical Practitioner, whereas tomorrow it will be the individual who will originate the process him/herself, given the amount of information people will have on themselves.  Moreover, digital players are now moving into the research field. In fact the huge amount of information available enables better differentiation between individual profiles. You know that these days Google has the best forecasting record for epidemics, beating the traditional health organisations hands down!

And what does the future hold for the pharmaceutical industry?

Pharmaceutical companies will, if not exactly change their business model, at least add on extra business models. They will acquire innovative startups and forge alliances with ICT firms. Their current business model is based on their ties with hospitals and doctors so their added value is therefore now under challenge from digital players in the ‘well-being’ space. By the way, it’s worth pointing out that many of these digital players are French, so that’s very good news for France.

What are the obstacles to global implementation of digital tools in the health sector?

Doctors are not geeks. They understand how to use health-related computer systems but the technical side is a real challenge for them – though it’s a fact that 95% of all doctors say they go on to the Internet to obtain more information on diseases. Legislation could also prove to be a hindrance. The legislators are used to having tight control over the environment so they might well view with suspicion new players from the IT sector entering the health field. There may be a point at which healthcare and well-being stop converging. Over in the United States they have a better basis for developing such apps, largely because private health insurance companies are pushing for a more preventive approach to healthcare. After all, it costs a lot less to protect people against burnout and heart disease than to cure them.

The paper coordinated by Vincent Mangematin examines the strategies of digital players in the well-being sector in three countries: United States, China and France.

By Pierre-Marie Mateo