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Is Digital Health Finally About to Turn All That Hype Into Results?

May 04, 2016

Last week, tech behemoth Apple (aapl) announced the launch of a spate of health apps linked to its new CareKit developer tool set, including programs for monitoring depression (Iodine's Start app), pregnancy and maternity (Glow's Nurture and Baby apps), and diabetes (One Drop's eponymous application).

It's part of a concerted effort by a bevy of mainstay technology companies and startups to personalize healthcare by leveraging the power of self-tracked data and, in CareKit's case, a centralized terminal which brings together individuals, patient communities, caretakers, and medical professionals to track symptoms, medication use, and other care information.

For all the hoopla and hype, though, the promise of these ostensibly "disruptive" technologies has yet to translate into quantifiable results such as improved health, fewer hospital admissions, or reduced healthcare spending. There are some legitimate reasons for that, including the obvious caveat that many mobile health platforms are fledgling creations which need more time to make an impact.

But if you believe the optimists, including several of the minds behind the first wave of CareKit apps, the digital health revolution may be on the cusp of delivering actual results.

One natural question for digital health enthusiasts is whether the target treatment populations will actually use apps like One Drop consistently enough to yield benefits. After all, the median age of diabetes diagnoses in the U.S. is 54 and more than 43% of new diabetes diagnoses occur in the 50-to-64 age cohort, according to the most recent CDC data.

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But the Pew Research Center finds that just 54% of Americans aged 50-64 owned a smartphone in 2015. That's compared with 85% and 79% of 18-to-29 year olds and 30-to-49 year olds, respectively.

Luckily for health app developers, demographics are destiny, and smartphone ownership is clearly the wave of the future (the ownership figures increased significantly for the oldest Americans between 2014 and 2015). Still, that doesn't ensure that users unaccustomed to admittedly sleek new apps will stick with the kind of continuous use that would most likely bolster their health.

That's where CareKit can help, by delivering users a seamless and centrally integrated platform where they can enter all their relevant health information, according to One Drop CEO and founder Jeff Dachis.

"Pick your favorite crappy tech metaphor from the ‘90s – where the promise of the technology was there, but the implementation was so poorly done that it was almost useless," Dachis told Fortune in an interview. "That’s what we’ve seen with the first iterations of mobile or digital health, where you’ve got companies or businesses who have really not put the time and energy into thinking about a high quality, human user experience."

One Drop does take pains to put users' experiences and needs at the forefront. The diabetes monitoring and maintenance application allows users to enter their food intake, track symptoms like pain and hunger, measure those inputs against glucose levels, and recommend medication dosages.

Dachis says he believes clinical trial data on One Drop set for release later this year will vindicate its potential to help users' health. He also points to the potential of competitors such as Omada Health, another digital chronic disease maintenance firm whose diabetes prevention application has shown promise in several peer-reviewed clinical studies.

"You can either be a lifestyle product or a product that delivers actual results, and I think for the most part we’ve seen a lot of digital health stuff touch on lifestyle," said Dachis. "But just now we’re starting to broach the threshold for delivering actual clinical results through digital platforms. And I think it’s part of a huge sea change from healthcare to self-care."

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