Vodafone’s announcement last week that it plans to set up a global healthcare team in 2010 marks a turning point in mobile health.
Currently, mobile operators are involved in health applications in the UK, but machine to machine (m2m) – where an embedded Sim sends messages over the network – is yet to be fully deployed.
Much of this depends on regulation, but operators have been working with the EU to make a number of m2m initiatives a reality, as Mobile reported last month.
Healthcare, along with smart metering, police and location based services, has the potential to be a huge money maker for the UK networks. Some have deployed schemes in other countries that have yet to reach the UK. ‘It’s an interesting one,’ says Strategy Analytics analyst Andy Brown.
However, he adds that most activity so far has been around IT Infrastructure – ‘readying the fixed infrastructure for mobile application’.
Although ‘there is stuff happening within the NHS’, says Brown, it is mainly with ‘horizontal access such as email’.
He adds: ‘The headlines come from front office apps – where doctors can access databases. Apple has been beating its chest recently over these sorts of things, but the real money is in IT systems.
‘Work is happening in hospitals and it’s definitely something that is being investigated at the moment. Some of them are at very early stages.’
Vodafone is shifting from being solely a mobile provider to a fixed and m2m platform as well – as are its rivals. A Vodafone spokeswoman says the new health team would add m2m within the health service so ‘we can make it more efficient and more certain that people have the info they need’.
She cites the example of diabetic software: ‘We offer a service with t+ Medical that means you can send blood sugar reports to be monitored by a nurse – in earlier times, you had to go to the doctor. It ensures people at home have the information to check chronic health conditions.’
Another use for mobile in health could be doctor’s appointment reminders. The Vodafone spokeswoman says: ‘Missed appointments cost a fortune, reminders could reduce the amount of forgotten consultations by as much as 39%.’
However, Brown says that Orange Business is ‘way ahead’ of Vodafone. He also adds that in Spain, O2 Telefónica has a ‘world of machines’ strategy: ‘It’s an m2m platform initiative that comes from their relationship with the banks in Spain.’
At this point in time, all UK operators are trying to get into this business. It could be smart metering in one market, healthcare in another and location based services in another, says Brown, adding: ‘Healthcare is an area where there has been a fair amount of investment in the UK and
‘Most people are interested at this point in standardising the systems, there is a lot of stuff going on. There is industrial, m2m healthcare happening, for example automatic authentication in old people’s homes, so those with illnesses such as Alzheimers can be monitored with location based services.’
Orange Group has been active in the healthcare market since 2007, says the operator’s director of healthcare, Michael Reilly.
The network has over 70 employees including experienced clinicians, specialist R&D staff, business development and network and applications specialists.
Reilly says Orange’s strategy, with partners, is to offer services based on new and existing technology including enabling access, patient engagement in managing illness and wellness, efficiency and cost effectiveness.
The Orange Group has already rolled out a number of multi-bearer solutions
to the healthcare market. Reilly cites ‘Connected Hospital’ in France – an integrated network for hospitals allowing immediate and direct access to information for administrative staff and clinicians.
Orange also provides mobile services to UK customers across the NHS, private medical organisations and pharmaceutical companies, and is looking at ways to offer focused voice and data solutions for the UK’s complex healthcare market, adds Reilly.
3 has a team working on m2m, says a spokesman, adding that next year its ‘fantastic network after building 13,000 sites with T-Mobile’ will push things forward further.
The company has already worked with healthcare companies on mobile applications for tasks such as downloading forms or things that are part of the medical process.
The mobile industry’s move into healthcare is bringing closer a time when anything from a prescription through to ambulance communication with hospitals will be possible through the network.
Operators now need to ensure they have the technology and facilities to cope with the pressure that they will ultimately face.
Vodafone’s healthcare ambitions
Vodafone’s new healthcare team will build on previous ‘small scale’ projects, pulling all aspects together into a team that will deal with m2m as well.
It says that its technology will provide better service and quality in both mature and emerging markets, and that its solutions will aim to meet the need for a re-evaluation of healthcare services delivery.
The operator’s new unit will have a team of around 10 people and will start operations at the beginning of 2010.
Vittorio Colao, chief executive at Vodafone, said last week: ‘The mobile health unit will focus solely on mobile healthcare solutions and will work with other organisations including pharmaceutical companies and government organisations, which can help us fully understand the needs of healthcare professionals.’
Earlier this year, the company expressed its interest in mobile healthcare when it partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation and the United Nations Foundation on the Mobile Health Alliance to maximise mobile health in the developing world.