Are tech companies health researchers?

15 Aug 2016

  • Technology
  • Data
  • Marketing Technology

The brightest minds focus on health as we look at technology including fitness apps and the impact on healthcare.

It’s little surprise technology companies have an eye on the health sector with its potential for grand-scale profit and the opportunity to positively impact the lives of millions. However, for every success such as fitness app Runtastic, there’s a Theranos.

Once touted as having the power to revolutionise healthcare, Theranos, the company behind an innovative pin-prick blood test is today besieged by controversy. Between allegations the tech used for the product was built by other companies and claims investors have been misled, Theranos is a cautionary tale for those looking to make a difference to our health. In 2014, the company was valued at $US9 billion. Last month, business magazine Forbes reported founder Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs of biotechnology, now has a net worth of zero. It seems the rewards for getting it right are as great as the risks but fortunately that hasn’t stopped other tech companies from having a crack.

Runtastic is one such company. Its running and fitness tracking apps have seen more than 180 million downloads since launching in 2009. Stephanie Peterson, VP of Marketing & Strategic Communications at Runtastic, says: “Runtastic is the leader when it comes to helping regular people track their daily fitness activities. Our first app, and the app we're most well known for is the Runtastic app. The focus of it is running but you can also track other activities.” In 2011, the company took on a multi-app strategy adding apps for mountain and road biking to its portfolio of products. Four years later, Adidas bought Runtastic for $US239 million.

The main goal for Runtastic is helping people to reach fitness milestones such as running 5K or losing weight as they tap into a movement called the “quantified self”. The quantified self is all about using technology to measure various aspects of our lives; think apps helping new mothers to log the progress of baby’s breastfeeding or websites where users gauge their daily mood. 

John Moore, Director, Marketing, Australia and New Zealand at health insurance provider Bupa, calls these ‘life hacks’. He says: “The amount of ‘life hacks’ people are implementing is quite outstanding. Life hacks solve the things people can't because of where they are at in their life. It could be age or an illness they suffered.”

Bupa is presently working with the Australian Stroke Foundation on a website called Enable Me that provides a community for survivors of strokes to share problem-solving ideas. In recent months, Bupa has also launched The Blue Room, an online community for Bupa users that answers basic health questions such as what to do when a dose of medication is missed. Moore says: “Lot's of people don't know the answers to these questions and a doctor isn't always available to tell them.”

That said, Moore is cautious of implementing technology in the health space. He says: “It's more around what problems are we solving and how do we deliver rather than saying, ‘Here's a new bit of technology that may or may not actually meet any value to a customer’. We don't put things in a bucket of wearable tech because wearable tech doesn't solve anything rather than make tech companies able to sell things.”

When designed to meet a genuine need, Moore sees technology as having the ability to assist in our daily lives and while there is some suggestion artificial intelligence will soon see doctors and surgeons become obsolete, he disagrees. Moore says: “Machine learning is going to become quite valuable in the health space by supporting people and supporting doctors. If you break your leg or you need a root canal, there's no technology that's going to solve for that. You're still going to have to go to a hospital or to a doctor and get it fixed.”

Runtastic’s Peterson does see one area where health tech has the possibility to make major inroads. Instead of treating the symptoms of poor lifestyle choices, why not intervene before the bad habits set in. In Austria where Runtastic is headquartered, Peterson and her team have been looking at setting up programs within the school system to teach kids about the benefits of health and exercise. By utilising the technology behind Runtastic, Peterson also believes school educators could shift their perceptions of smartphones and other devices that have become the enemy in the schoolyard. She says: “The best case scenario would be to get kids to be more active in general rather than less active which is the current trend. Hopefully, it can help to fight obesity. We also see it could be really valuable for education professionals, whether it's teachers, school nurses or principals.”

While this technology presents a raft of opportunities for many organisations, there are also ethical, moral and privacy concerns.

Runtastic’s Peterson says particularly in the United States, getting into bed with insurance providers is a cause for concern. She says: “Insurance companies are trying to encourage people to live healthier lives saying if you do X number of activities or lose X amount of weight your monthly cost will go down. In theory, it’s a win for everyone, however, in the US where the connection between the insurance provider and the receiver of insurance policies is the employer, people see a bit of a dilemma there.”

While the idea of using an app like Runtastic to get a discount on your health insurance sounds pretty great, Peterson says this could pose issues for people unable to live as healthily as they may like. She says: “What if, because of my life right now, I don't actually have time to be more active? Maybe I have a sick child. Maybe there's something going on in my life that people at work don't know about that stands in the way of me becoming more active and taking advantage of this system. There's some fear that when the employer becomes more aware of the employees’ individual activities, it could be used to discriminate against them.”

There’s also greater privacy concerns on account of using the technology itself. Adam Tyler, a data security expert from CSID, says apps like Runtastic as well as Fitbit-style devices fall under the heading of the “internet of things” or IoT. This covers everything from WIFI enabled light bulbs, to connected luggage and even toothbrushes. Tyler says: “All of these devices are effectively being enabled and connected to the internet to allow people to analyse and manage the data they collect, remotely. A lot of the time the data that is being collected has minimal value. The problem, however, is usually user accounts are secured by email addresses and passwords. This could allow an attacker to identify a username and password if they gained access to that device which could be used in a replay attack to access the individual’s email or other accounts.” 

Right now, Tyler says, the biggest issue with the IoT isn't necessarily loss of data, it's more a lack of security that's being built into these devices. “The products themselves have not been developed around secure principles. Security is almost added on as a second thought which means a large number of these devices either have huge security issues in them or have very easy to guess default passwords.”

Provided privacy and ethical concerns are adequately addressed, the possibilities for technology to assist with and improve our health are endless. Bring on the life hacks.


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