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Why Qualcomm Is Betting on Wireless Health

One of the world’s largest chip makers is helping to instigate a boom in wireless health devices.
September 30, 2013

Asthmapolis has a GPS sensor for inhalers that uses a Bluetooth radio so people with asthma can track where and when they needed help breathing. CleverCap attaches to pill bottles, flashes and beeps when it’s time to take medication, and then, using Wi-Fi and cellular networks, reports to the Internet whether the pills were taken. The Garmin heart-rate monitor straps across the chest and digitally communicates beeps and blips with yet another wireless protocol, called ANT-plus.

That’s just a fraction of the wireless health devices reaching the “mobile health” market, gadgets that could one day be as ubiquitous as mobile phones. But this is no seamless ecosystem: these three devices alone use three different communication protocols. The potential flood of data pouring out of the machines might as well just disappear into the ether if it’s not stored, organized, and made accessible to the right people in real time.

Qualcomm Life, launched two years ago as a division of the San Diego–based telecommunications giant Qualcomm, is building software and protocols that could bring some order to the chaos of health data. Its first product, called the 2Net Platform, is a system for getting wireless data off those devices and onto the Internet servers of clients, like health device makers or hospitals.

About half of American adults have some kind of chronic condition, including obesity, arthritis, or diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wireless devices could let more of their health care happen at home. To proponents of mobile health, like Don Jones, Qualcomm Life’s head of global marketing and strategy, this means that unnecessary visits to clinics and emergency rooms will plummet, people will refine their use of medicine, and doctors and nurses will have more time to focus on their neediest patients. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report this year estimated that mobile health technology could help save developed countries $400 billion by 2017.

Sitting in his office in decidedly mundane Sorrento Mesa—no stunning San Diego ocean views in sight—Jones pulls out the division’s first gadget, the 2Net hub, a plain-looking white box that’s about the size of a night light and plugs into a wall socket. The box solves a particular problem: people often don’t take advantage of the wireless capabilities of their health devices. For example, a bathroom scale might be equipped with Bluetooth, but it never transmits any data if the owner doesn’t complete the setup process, called pairing. “If you’ve ever paired anything, it’s not a complex process, but there’s a very high failure rate,” says Jones.

The box supports four different radio protocols, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and a USB port. Device manufacturers buy it from distributors for less than $100 so consumers can have a plug-and-play experience with their tracking devices, even if they don’t have an Internet connection. Devices that currently work with the 2Net hub include a thermometer, a blood-pressure cuff, a pulse oximeter, and a blood-glucose monitor.

By 2020 there will be 25 billion wireless devices transmitting data, estimates the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. To accelerate things in health care, a separate Qualcomm Life Fund has invested widely in startups such as Noom, publisher of an app for people trying to lose weight, and Telcare, which makes a system that diabetics can use to monitor their glucose levels.

This year Qualcomm Life paid an undisclosed amount to acquire Healthy Circles, a “software-as-a-service” platform that uses social-networking ideas to coördinate health care. Essentially, patients send their self-gathered data to a Web portal that also stores their medical records, information on their current medications, and up-to-the-minute lab reports. This allows nurses, doctors, and pharmacists to literally stay on the same page as the patients themselves, while obeying federal rules on data privacy.

Logical, efficient and slick as wireless, always-on health care may sound, Jones agrees that it’s still far from reality. “At the end of the day, one of your health-care providers has to make it available to you and build it in to a solution,” he says. “We’re selling that platform.”

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