Digital Healthcare - more signs of things to come

I remain utterly convinced that digitally assisted personal healthcare will be the biggest technology-oriented market since the personal computer. How can it not be - only the adoption of Internet and IT economics can save the health systems of the world, and only the creation of an integrated, end-user oriented market can make that happen.

I remain utterly convinced that digitally assisted personal healthcare will be the biggest technology-oriented market since the personal computer. How can it not be - only the adoption of Internet and IT economics can save the health systems of the world, and only the creation of an integrated, end-user oriented market can make that happen.

There are signs that this is happening. At the nuts-and-bolts end, Cambridge Consultants today announced Vena, a $10 chip that combines the IEEE 11073 Personal Health Data standard - a framework for interoperable formats for various monitoring devices - and the Bluetooth Medical Device Profile. Vena is designed to sit in portable medical devices and do all the hard work of relaying information to home health gateways. As Vena includes display and other interface hardware, all a designer has to do is bung in the appropriate sensors and that's the product right there.

So that's a vote for a really mass market - and the practical implementation of essential standards. Both necessary.

But the real problem, and one that's stopping me rushing out, selling everything that I have and starting my own company in this field, is the almost total lack of a proper retail channel. While the ideal of getting people the technology to monitor and control their own health is fine, the reality is that any such activity has to take place at the junction of highly regulated medical, state and insurance sectors. You can't just open a shop.

Which is why I find PatientsLikeMe.com so exciting. It's a social network website, where the community driver is finding other people with your illness. That sounds a recipe for a thoroughly miserable time - but it's quite the opposite. The reasoning goes that nobody's as motivated to research and share information on health as people with health problems - and that there's no better way than online. What sets PatientsLikeMe apart - and what makes it such a bellwether for the future - is that it encourages the collection and analysis of hard data and real numbers. Dosage, effects, daily changes - people can share their experiences and look for trends, in a way that's simply impossible otherwise. Their doctors and consultants couldn't do it.

As you can imagine, this is raising all manner of interesting practical and ethical questions - many covered in an excellent piece in the NY Times - but none that in any way impinge on the ability of informed, motivated people to take charge of their own health.

Web sites like this will be the nucleators for the market, forming a natural focus for companies to talk to users, and users to talk about companies. From a marketing perspective, the web site readers are an ideal audience, and any advertising will fulfil the golden rules of being relevant to its readers and presented when they're most receptive to its message.

These are very exciting developments - and there's much more to come.