Rock Health looking to the car for the future of Connected Health

For me this XConomy article by Malay Gandhi, Strategist in Residence at Rock Health (who have just published this Smart Seating report on the opportunity for convergence of the automotive and healthcare industries), highlights some of many challenges that technologists face when they look to healthcare challenges.

The car is entering an innovation renaissance… …For example, Ford recently launched their AppLink API in 1 million vehicles, allowing drivers to seamlessly integrate and navigate their mobile apps for things such as navigation, playing music, or finding local deals from behind the wheel

Does anyone really think that another walled garden accessible from the car is going to be attractive to healthcare providers? Even one look at the images shared in the Ford press releases should make it clear this is more about fast food and driver distractions than positive health outcomes:

The convergence of technology and the automobile has unleashed innovations in safety, navigation, entertainment, and now, health

I think it’s had to differentiate safety and health (in the case of the automobile without safety you haven’t got health) but I think it’s an exaggeration to say this is just starting as it’s actually been happening for a long time now (see Mercedes Tea Cup concentration monitor, Volvo’s breath analysis ignition control systems, etc) and as I’ve touched on before there are lots of lessons to be taken on by the mHealth community from a study of it – especially as they move on from assistive to predictive opportunities:

There are a few key trends driving innovation in digital health in your car: changes in the car interface around personalization and connectivity, the introduction of embedded sensors, and growing consumer interest in health monitoring devices and apps

I can see no evidence that this is happening. To the contrary major motor manufacturing groups are clamouring all over Apple to stick their OS in their cars because they realise the future of in car entertainment is being led by the mobile industry:

VW group (owners of brands such as VW, Audi, Bentley) are obviously siding with Apple and a recent motor show hasn’t been complete without them showing Apple hardware integration across their entire range of vehicles but this isn’t a industry that can innovate at a rate that is in any way comparable to the mobile market and we’ve noted plenty of mistakes as a result of this eg. JLR (owners of Range Rover, Jaguar) has even been demoing the integration of it’s £100,000 luxury exec cars with Blackberry’s despite their fall from grace.

This convergence is a welcome juxtaposition to the public health opinion on cars, where they are considered a potential physical detriment to health. After all, people forgo walking or biking to drive, they sit still for extended periods of time when behind the wheel, and studies have shown the act of commuting actually has a negative correlation with happiness. People who drive a lot are often unhealthy—research shows that nearly half of car buyers have back pain and over a quarter are obese

Of course the idea that “my Ford Focus keeps me slim” will no doubt be a hit with the ad men but healthcare marketing doesn’t exist in some bubble and it’s pretty obvious that the groupon style adverts for fast food deals are going to be top of the list for any product manager looking for a return on investment on these connected systems.

Leading auto companies are jump-starting the change in health through the car. Ford’s AppLink platform includes a number of applications in the health and wellness category, most recently showing off integration with Medtronic glucose monitors and the WellDoc Diabetes Manager application

It costs very little for a company with debts the size of Ford’s to make press releases like this but the idea of them getting the next Ford Focus regulated as a medical device by the FDA is a pipe dream that’s not going to be happening anytime soon.

More likely we’ll see them work like Apple is doing: partnering with medical device makers to bring innovations to market. To give you an idea of what this looks like think how Ford could sell you a car with an ECG monitoring steering wheel but would be better off just investing in a brand like Alivecor that can make an ECG monitoring steering wheel cover that could be used in any car because it would talk with the patients smartphone/tablet (every car will be sold with connectivity to the top mobile devices).

As car makers introduce additional sensors into the car—measuring weight, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, blood oxygen, glucose and seat pressure—new opportunities will open up for digital health entrepreneurs and developers. It is easy to imagine weight sensors integrating with existing consumer services such as Lose It! or Withings. Farther down the line, embedded services that can analyze stress based on numerous biosensors could be used to help alert fellow drivers on the road if a driver is distracted or calm road rage by automatically turning on a relaxing song

In my opinion none of this needs the car to have technology (eg. it could all be done by a smartphone with a wireless sensor and MP3 player that can play through the car stereo) so why would car manufacturers build in tech that’s going to be made obsolete by the cannibal of cannibals (with their 12 month replacement cycles) in only a few years?

Dana Lowell from Faurecia, an automotive supplier, says: ‘The future is embedded biosensors in the car that allow for a passive approach to data collection. This is not something the individual has to remember to put on, wear or sync—compliance is a non-issue. It is sitting in your car everyday and letting the data collect itself‘”

Once again I see nothing here that couldn’t be achieved by just putting mHealth tech in the car as an after market addition by the driver eg. want a breathing rate sensor just stick a sensor into the cigarette lighter (Gear4 will probably have their Renew SleepClock redesigned for the car and on the market before I’ve finished dictating this blog post!).

The car is ubiquitous. American households have, on average, more than two cars each, and nearly everyone uses a car. Cars therefore hold the potential to eliminate adoption barriers facing wearable devices that monitor the body—quickly establishing mainstream markets for sensors and applications that will make people not just safer, but healthier

This bit confuses me because surely hoping that cars can eliminate adoption barriers would require for this technology to be standard fitment OR mandated fitment because otherwise it’s just another option buyers won’t go for. Because profits exist in the optional extras I’m sceptical that a motor manufacturer is going to start giving it away anytime soon.

The report is hard to take seriously as it claims to have been produced with expertise from the leading automotive component manufacturer Faurecia but the history charting seems at odds with this because it’s ignoring many of the key innovations (eg. laminated glass) while mentioning others at completely random points (eg. heated seats have actually been on cars since the 60’s):

Collectively it makes it unlikely that anyone with automotive expertise has even looked at this and more than likely it was just someone involved in seat design. The quote we’re left with on the future of cars being about embedded sensors also surprises me as I think bed/mattress manufacturers are better placed to monetise these opportunities than car firms which will in all liklihood see revenue losses going forward as smartphone tech cannabalises the premium technology they have customers buy from the option list:

It’s surprising to see that the sleep/bed market seems to be completely ignored by the report despite the fact we’re all spending about 1/3 of our lives lying on this bit of furniture and the patients that spend the most on healthcare are spending even more of their time:

To end on a positive what are the biggest automobile health opportunities that exist today?

It’s all to common to find technologists talking about mHealth who run ahead of themselves with “what could be possible with new technology” rather than an appreciation of “what we could do with what we have today”.

Today the use of mobile phones presents huge challenges to road safety so maybe addressing some of these would be a good start? Automobile manufacturers who are serious about road safety should in my opinion be working to support directives that would require all cars to supports hands free mobile phone operation. Multimedia dash displays should be configured so that they remind the driver every time they start the car that they should be turning their phones off or to a “driving” profile and that texting and driving don’t go together.

Can you think of any more possibilities to improve things with what we’ve already got?

About David Doherty
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