2013: A Remarkable Year for mHealth Apps

2013 A Remarkable Year for mHealth AppsFrom record venture capital funding, to unprecedented scientific research behind their creation, mHealth applications finally turned the corner in 2013 as they emphatically entered the mainstream for mobile device users around the world.

According to the recently published findings of Manhattan Research‘s Cybercitizen Health U.S. 2013 Study, 95 million Americans now count on their mobile devices to access health information and services. In fact, the number of Americans using mHealth resources is up 27 percent from just one year ago.

In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to begin regulating a small segment of the expanding universe of mobile health applications that, in light of their growing scientific grounding, are making bigger and bolder claims about what they can achieve for our general health and wellness.

Unlike the large assortment of ineffective gimmick apps and simple activity trackers that first arrived in the world’s leading app stores in the early days of their existence, today’s most popular mHealth apps are also the most critically acclaimed and clinically supported by physicians and health experts.

As 2013 rapidly winds to a close, a compelling case can now be made that this year brought with it the most impressive and consequential mHealth apps we’ve seen to date.

“mHealth apps have come a long way from their humble and ‘too cute to be taken seriously’ beginnings,” says Mario Westbury, a Boston-based business analyst and nationally published tech news columnist.

But despite the ballooning number of apps that have effectively raised the bar – from a scientific and medical standpoint – for the broader community of mHealth app makers, there are myriad facets of this industry where enormous potential continues to go unrealized.

On December 10th, Juniper released new industry estimates suggesting that the business of wearable tech devices will continue to boom through the next five years. Juniper estimates that smart wearable device shipments – including many designed for health tracking purposes – will approach 130 million by 2018, 10-times higher than estimated this year.

According to experts in the field, however, the biggest problem with technology that tracks your health is the pronounced scarcity of comprehensive and compatible solutions.

The most persistent complaint about Nike+ Running, for example, is that it doesn’t integrate with MyFitnessPal. Another example is Nike+ Running, an otherwise excellent resource for mapping runs and monitoring progress. But on those inevitable days when you have a bad run, what can Nike+ Running really offer in the way of insight behind that bad run? If, on the other hand, Nike integrated with apps that detail dietary habits and sleep patterns, analysis and recommendations would be readily accessible and actionable.

Notwithstanding the tenacious gripes of avid mobile users frustrated by the need to juggle a slew of incompatible fitness devices and apps to get the data and recommendations desired, the makers of today’s foremost mHealth solutions are still failing to deliver the total package requested.

Nike made headlines earlier this fall with the latest refresh in its popular line of mobile fitness trackers. Although Nike deserves credit for bringing a sleep-monitoring capability to the new Fuelband SE, this is hardly a game-changing value-added feature. At best, this solution only reaffirms that which you already know – how much sleep you’re getting on an average night.

If Nike+ Fuelband SE had integrated the neuroscience-based Sleep Genius app, then perhaps the “groundbreaking” designation touted by Nike might be deserved. After all, Nike’s product would then be able to monitor sleeping patterns and facilitate a better night’s sleep.

The ability to confirm the presence of a problem without offering a corresponding solution to remedy that problem is not what the mobile masses are interested in today.

As a result, Fitbit, Nike, Jawbone, and a host of other emerging mammoths of this young mHealth industry must now go further with their innovation. Even though they are still important, simple activity trackers are a dime-a-dozen.

Consumers are clamoring for a fusion of technologies that track and treat.

If more solutions tailored to this demand hit the market next year, then the corner mHealth turned in 2013 will be nothing in comparison to what 2014 will bring.

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Yes. There was lots of progress in 2013. But there's still lots more opportunity ahead (and work to do), including integrating the wireless sensors using different network protocols (ANT+, Bluetooth 4, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, etc.). As this evolves over a decade or more, some people will complain that it's not moving fast enough while others will be astonished at just how fast it is moving. One thing's certain -- there's a large need and a demonstrable value proposition to monitoring one's health, and this will be a huge market driver. 

As you look at market forecasts, don't just look at projected growth but also consider the various market drivers & inhibitors and how actions addressing each of them affect the end result. With that perspective, you have a better chance of placing good bets and choosing the future you want. For more on this concept and a broader look, see Moore’s Law and The FUTURE of Healthcare.