The Internet of Things Is Transforming Healthcare, but There's One Huge Risk

Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 24.

From fitness trackers to medical devices that track specific conditions such as Huntington's disease or asthma, technology and healthcare companies are increasingly joining forces to utilize the Internet of Things to better monitor patients' health and help prevent diseases. 

The possibilities for both device makers and Big Pharma to collaborate with tech companies are vast, which is no surprise given that more than $3 trillion was spent on healthcare in the U.S. in 2014, and likely even more than that in 2015, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  

Alongside countless digital health startups, a wave of collaborations has already taken place as companies look to get ahead of what remains a very ill-defined market. But these new opportunities aren't without risk, and for device makers and other healthcare companies, that uncertainty is largely centered around security

"The connected car and house are really, really cool, but none of that is more important than healthcare," Ivan Feinseth of Tigress Partners said.

Those taking part in the industry's transformation include IBM  (IBM) , which has already proven to be the most prolific IoT acquirer, while Apple (AAPL) , Samsung  (SSNLF) and Garmin's  (GRMN)  efforts include wearables to track health and fitness. Alphabet's Google  (GOOG)  is also part of the wearables group, though Alphabet's efforts span much further as it is also developing products such as smart contact lenses. For their part, Qualcomm (QCOM)  and Intel  (INTL)  are also partnering with Big Pharma to track and prevent diseases. 

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Still, Feinseth said it's too early to identify one clear leader: "I don't think anyone's winning yet, but nobody's losing."

On the consumer side, it's the business of wearable devices, which refers to technology worn in clothing or accessories, that has exploded. Samsung, Google, Garmin, Fitbit  (FIT)  and Apple continue to fight for market share for products that track activities such as sleep, heart rate, steps, distance traveled and calories burned. 

Some have gone even further. For instance, Samsung's soon-to-be launched Gear S3 smartwatch includes a heart rate sensor with a location tracking feature that allows the user to notify emergency professionals as well as family and friends in a crisis situation. There's no firm launch date for the Gear S3, but it's rumored to be released in the coming weeks or months. 

The fitness wearable market is anticipated to grow to about $14.4 billion by 2020, from about $9.5 billion in 2015, according to a recent report on the IoT by RBC analysts. Wristbands and smart watches currently account for about 60% of the installed base, which is expected to expand to beyond 310 million by 2020 from 174 million today, according to the report.  

Even so, the report notes that fitness trackers could see a slight slowdown in growth as the market becomes increasingly saturated and average selling prices decline. The reliability of wearables -- that is, whether they actually drive changes in behavior -- has also been a matter of debate. 

 
A newer phenomenon taking place is the collaboration between Big Pharma and the tech industry.

Israel's Teva (TEVA) and Intel, for instance, announced plans in September to jointly create a wearable device that monitors the symptoms of patients suffering from Huntington's disease. The platform will require patients to use a smartphone and wear a smartwatch equipped with sensing technology to continuously track their movement. 

Teva, meanwhile, is also among the companies offering so-called 'smart inhalers' that monitor patients' usage -- a market that is expected to reach $191 million by 2022, from $5.8 million in 2015, according to an October report by Allied Market Research. 

Last September, Teva bought startup Gecko Health Innovations, whose CareTRx sensor is attached to inhalers in order to monitor usage and provide dose reminders, as well as do things such as track symptoms and patient progress. At the same time, smart inhalers transfer patient data to a mobile app and the cloud, so that providers, payers and manufacturers can analyze the information in order to improve care. 

Other smart inhaler collaborations include the Breezhaler inhaler device for treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that Swiss drugmaker Novartis  (NVS)  and Qualcomm are currently developing. 

French pharma company Sanofi (SNY)  has also been active on the IoT front. The drugmaker recently announced a partnership with a unit of Google to develop a new digital technology for the prevention of diabetes. The joint venture between Sanofi and Google's Verily Life Sciences will be known as Onduo and seeks to monitor food intake, test glucose levels and improve medication management.  

Google's collaboration with Sanofi is just one of its many efforts in healthcare. Verily has also been developing smart contact lenses that will continuously measure the glucose level in tears, and separately, is working with biotech company Biogen (BIIB)  in an effort to crack multiple sclerosis. The partnership combines wearable sensors with traditional clinical tests, and uses new lab-based tests to gather and analyze various variables to better understand why the disease progresses differently among patients. 

On the healthcare IoT M&A front, IBM has been by far the most active company.  
 
In February, the multinational tech giant announced a $2.6 billion deal to acquire Truven Health Analytics from Veritas Capital, bulking up its healthcare data and analytics business, IBM Watson Health.
 
Watson Health was created by IBM in April 2014 via its acquisitions of Phytel from Polaris Venture Partners and cloud-based healthcare intelligence company Explorys from Heritage Group. IBM continued to beef up the Watson Health unit in August, shelling out $1 billion for Chicago medical imaging company Merge Healthcare.
 
Initiatives announced this month include the formation of a strategic alliance with Siemens Healthineers (formerly Siemens Healthcare), through which it will provide population health management, which refers to the analysis of patient data across various platforms to support providers as health care shifts from a fee-for-service model to value-based care. 
 
IBM also said earlier this month it would invest $200 million in its Watson IoT business headquarters in Munich, Germany. As of October, the company had 6,000 clients globally for its Watson IoT products and services overall, up from just 4,000 eight months ago.  

One area we'll likely see more partnerships is between health insurance providers and technology companies, predicts Tigress Partners' Feinseth.

Health insurance giant Aetna (AET) , for instance, became the first major healthcare company to subsidize a significant portion of the cost of an Apple Watch in September to select large employers and individual customers, announcing plans to offer monthly payroll deductions. The insurer also plans to roll out several health-related apps for Apple's mobile devices to support things such as medical billing and medication adherence. 

With a vast array of new opportunities also comes potential obstacles, however, including the susceptibility of connected medical devices to cyberattacks. 

Concerns around the potential security threats facing the medical device arena heightened this summer, when short seller Muddy Waters claimed that about half of St. Jude Medical's (STJ) revenues for the next two years were poised to disappear because its pacemakers are vulnerable to hacking; on Monday, Muddy Waters issued a legal brief stating that outside security experts had validated its claims. For its part, St. Jude Medical has refuted the accusations, and industry pundits subsequently wrote that investors' negative reaction to the news was exaggerated.  

Still, patient safety is sure to remain front and center for all healthcare and technology parties involved. That includes St. Jude, which on Oct. 18 announced plans to create a cyber security medical advisory board to help improve its standards. 

Powered by the new wealth of patient data enabled by connected devices, the healthcare industry is poised for a massive transformation. Coupled with the larger trend towards a healthcare system based on value and not volume, and cutting costs, improving clinical objectives, collecting data, monitoring populations and engaging with patients become infinitely more important.

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