Telematics and mobile health: Meet your personal OnStar

What does a sleek, 4,000-pound Mercedes-Benz have in common with a wrinkled, 100-pound 85-year-old? Well, both are vehicles carrying precious cargo (in the Mercedes-Benz, people; in the body, organs), and both benefit from speedy service if something goes awry (like a collision for the car or a fall for the elderly person). Then why does the Mercedes-Benz get a fancy telematics system that can deliver immediate, automatic response in case of emergency, while the elderly person is stuck with an outdated emergency phone in the other room or, worse, nothing at all?


“Falling is one of the primary concerns of the elderly, to the point of paranoia,” says Paul Hedtke, senior director of business development for Qualcomm. “If it hasn’t happened to them, they at least know someone who has fallen and couldn’t get up for hours.” So a few years back, Hedtke and his team at Qualcomm decided to create a new solution, one that leveraged telematics technology developed for automotive safety and security to provide peace of mind to the elderly and their caregivers.


The result is Lifecomm, a mobile personal emergency response system (MPERS) that elders can wear like a watch, pendant, or belt clip and which includes features like automatic fall detection, GPS and nationwide cellular capabilities, and connectivity to end-user and caregiver Web portals. “This is essentially a personal OnStar,” says Hedtke. “The idea all along has been to bring wireless-communication-enabled health services to the consumer.”


New revenue streams

Ford also announced a series of health and wellness in-car connectivity solutions designed to empower people with self-help information while they drive. Ford envisions an array of health aids in its Health and Wellness connectivity portfolio, like glucose monitoring devices, diabetes management services, asthma management tools, and Web-based allergen alert solutions. “Ford SYNC is well known in the industry and with consumers as a successful in-car infotainment system, but we want to broaden the paradigm, transforming SYNC into a tool that can help improve people’s lives as well as the driving experience,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technology officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation.


As telematics solutions become cheaper, faster, smaller, and more mobile, the industry is bound to find non-traditional applications outside the automotive arena. Mobile health is a prime example. “This is a perfect analogue,” says Hedtke. Where telematics has automatic crash notification, mobile health has automatic fall detection. Where telematics has diagnostic reports, mobile health has health reports. 


“When you look at the Venn diagram of where telematics is and where mobile health is, the overlap is unbelievable,” says Kevin Link, vice president of marketing at Hughes Telematics, which has partnered with Qualcomm to bring the Lifecomm solution to market. Qualcomm supplies the chips while Hughes, which specializes in providing emergency services for the Mercedes mbrace interface, supplies the emergency support. 


“We’ve built a robust infrastructure to deliver emergency assistance to folks driving Mercedes-Benz vehicles,” says Rich Lobovsky, vice president of business development at Lifecomm, as well as a member of the Hughes Telematics team. “With Lifecomm, we’re delivering a similar service to people wearing devices. It’s like mbrace on the body.”


Competitive advantage

The notion that mobile health solutions can help the elderly (and turn a healthy profit) is not new, of course. The Baby Boomers are roaring into senescence. Roughly 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the US, and these 65-year-olds aren’t looking to settle down in their rocking chairs. They want to stay active, and they’re increasingly comfortable with mobile solutions that help them do so. The problem is that designing a small, durable connected device is a hard task.


“The PERS [personal emergency response systems] industry has been around 25 to 30 years, but there hasn’t been a huge amount of innovation there,” says Lobovsky. “It makes a lot of sense to enable mobility, but it’s difficult to do.” Here again, the telematics industry has an advantage, as its engineers are used to designing technology for challenging and inhospitable environments. For the Lifecomm solution, Qualcomm had to come up with a new wireless module small enough to fit comfortably on the body.


Additionally, the team had to create an adequate antenna that was powerful yet small enough to ride on your wrist. Meanwhile the device had to stay cool to the touch in spite of processing and transmitting constant streams of data. “It’s like building a watch,” says Hedtke. “There are only a small number of companies that can build some of the very small-dimensioned mechanical components needed for this device.”


Opportunities for growth

Lifecomm plans to release its first devices in the US late this year. The company has a third partner, American Medical Alert Corporation, which has 25 years of experience in the PERS industry and will act as a value-added reseller, much the way automotive OEMs act as value-added resellers for telematics solutions today. “Organizationally, there’s a lot of commonality,” says Hedtke.


Looking down the road, Qualcomm and Hughes both see opportunities for growth in the mobile health realm. Some automotive OEMs have expressed interest in the idea of mobile health as a way to create further connectivity inside and outside the car. “As we discuss Lifecomm with the automotive industry, we’ve been amazed at their reception,” says Link. “They say it makes perfect sense and remain incredibly interested in ways to help extend their brand beyond the vehicle.”


The Lifecomm team is also intent on creating mobile health devices for other patient segments, like those with diabetes who need to track blood sugar levels, diet, and exercise. “Our thinking is that we can give people tools for when they’re on their own, tools that help manage the therapies healthcare professionals have prescribed,” says Hedtke.


Finally, the team believes telematics can improve formal medical devices and diagnostic tools used by the healthcare system today. While this likely won’t happen overnight—the healthcare industry is notoriously slow to adopt change—there’s little doubt that wireless connectivity can improve the effectiveness of devices like heartbeat monitors in the future.


“We’re not Pollyannaish about it,” concludes Hedtke. “It will take time and a lot of patience to get there. But at the end of the day, there’s really no other choice because the current system is not a healthcare system, it

’s a sick-care system, and that’s not sustainable. Something has to change.”


Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.


For all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s other key players at Telematics Munich 2011 on November 9-10 in Munich and Content & App for Automotive Europe 2012 in May 2012 in Germany.

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