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Could a Nationwide Ob-Gyn Shortage Spark Digital Health Innovation?

The impending shortage of obstetricians and gynecologists in America could jump-start technological innovation in digital health markets for maternal and infant care, according to a study conducted by corporate consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

“With millennials heading into peak childbearing age, it’s a tough time to have a shortage [of ob/gyns],” says Nancy Fabozzi, a Frost & Sullivan analyst. “Technology vendors need to be thinking about this. If they’re not in maternal health or baby health now, they may want to buy in there.”

Maternal care alone has the potential to be a $50 billion market by 2025, according to Frost & Sullivan. A woman’s first interaction with digital healthcare may be through pregnancy, Fabozzi says, opening the possibility of developing a lasting bond with tools and technologies that helped her. Today’s tools include artificially intelligent assistants to aid clinicians, mobile apps to help mothers monitor the health of their baby and themselves, and myriad other gadgets, from smart nurseries and breast pumps to temperature and fertility trackers.

Digital health tools are popping up for many aspects of parenting, including fertility, birthing, nursing, and baby health and safety. Rising health concerns like preterm births and high maternal mortality rates have sharpened focus on the health of mothers and on the possibility for digital technology to improve it, according to Frost & Sullivan. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is exploring the issue.

Millennial mothers use technology much more than previous generations, the study notes, a boon to increased sales for maternal and infant care. A rise in dual-income households and busier millennial lifestyles also pave the way for additional growth.

Indeed, convenience is a major driver, Fabozzi says. Information can be more readily gathered and shared with physicians with such technologies, cutting down on the number of in-person appointments a patient may require (and in turn relieving the shrinking number of ob/gyns). And that’s to say nothing of the rise of “telehealth” or “telemedicine”—e-visits and virtual care from qualified medical professionals.

Good news: Many of these tools are accessible to lower-income mothers on their smartphones. Seventy-seven percent of all Americans (and 67% of people making less than $30,000 a year) own smartphones in 2018, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. When a woman experiencing a high-risk pregnancy arrives at the hospital without a smartphone, many facilities opt to give her a fully-loaded smartphone with which to monitor her health, Fabozzi says, because subsidizing preemptive solutions is less expensive for hospitals and insurers than caring for a woman and baby after health issues worsen.

Mobile apps may be the present, but speech-based apps are the future, Fabozzi says, thanks to a more intuitive interface. Indeed, several health companies are already building upon Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant platform. More are expected to follow, she says—after all, mothers are a growing market.

“This is an entree to a growing population,” she says. “You’re entering a market where you have young people just coming into the healthcare system and you want to get them to use your products for the rest of their lives. I can’t believe they’re not salivating.”

But, Fabozzi warns, they must keep data privacy and security at the forefront of their strategy. Today, the management of customer data is the chief concern for new technology purchases—and one reason why large technology companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have a big advantage.

“AI and cloud in particular will be crucial to how health systems will treat people in the future,” says Neil Jordan, Microsoft’s worldwide general manager for the health industry. “And how people take charge of their own health with apps tailored to their own needs.”