Academic Innovators: Deborah Estrin Seeks to Improve Health Through Open mHealth and Small Data

Photo from Cornell

Photo from Cornell Tech

Historically, deploying digital health solutions has been incredibly difficult, especially for startups. Barriers from a confusing and often burdensome regulatory environment, compliance issues, privacy issues, data issues, testing and deployment issues and financing requirements have given an edge to established companies with large balance sheets and very patient investors. However, emerging platforms provide a framework to help startups face this challenge. Also, new healthcare legislation and trends in the industry have created opportunities for wearable products and services to go from consumer to healthcare applications. But how should services be developed to best create and capture value given the complexities and challenges inherent in delivery system adoption? We had a chance to talk with Professor Deborah Estrin about how to develop and successfully commercialize mobile health systems, which shines some light on this opportunity.

Deborah Estrin is a Professor of Computer Science at Cornell NYC Tech and Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Her past contributions to embedded network sensing and other fields have garnered several academic honors and recognition as one of Popular Science’s Brilliant 10 in 2003. Recently, Estrin’s research has focused on small data and mobile health. She has co-founded Open mHealth, a non-profit that builds open APIs used by for-profit and non-profit solutions in the mHealth space and has shed light on how to drive delivery system innovation both internally and externally. According to the startup’s website, Estrin and co-founder Ida Sim were inspired to build “an open mHealth architecture” that will improve integration between solutions and unlock potential for the technology. Estrin’s work may hold the key to several barriers and challenges to innovating in the Healthcare space.

Estrin noted that an open architecture is important because “it creates a set of standards that can be used between companies across the industry” to enhance outcomes for patients and ease development. For instance, Open mHealth’s past projects included a system to improve management of PTSD symptoms and another to manage Type 1 diabetes—each of which integrated data from multiple third-party apps and devices. Estrin’s current projects focus on chronic pain, inflammatory conditions, and health behaviors. In terms of value creation and capture, Estrin said that companies and investors can “focus on commercialization around interface,  interaction, and sense-making features” within an open framework, instead of having to re-invent data capture.

For new solutions to create value, Estrin advised focusing on addressing specific conditions and understanding both the condition and the market. She said a barrier to entry and way to protect innovation can be “the combination of both specialized medical expertise and product design, especially with specific conditions.” By targeting one condition instead of seeking to develop a killer app, companies can target a concrete segment in healthcare markets. Estrin also emphasized the importance of “validating systems for treatment or management methods through scientific trials,” which can include full-scale clinical trials.

Estrin’s work today also focuses on small data, the “trail of breadcrumbs” from digital services and devices. At the intersection of wearables, small data, and healthcare, Estrin noted that popular wearable devices today serve a similar function to smart phone applications, such as Moves or fitness tracking applications. However, she noted that “devices like Fitbit are useful in reminding consumers to be active because they are constantly worn,” and that screens and other interactive features can increase user engagement.

Here at Inside Activity Tracking, the potential for healthcare systems built from wearable devices is fascinating and inspiring, especially as accuracy and battery life improve. Estrin’s research and innovation, especially with Open mHealth and small data, are a harbinger for companies seeking to innovate in the area. will enable. We look forward to seeing best practices emerge as successful mHealth applications target specific conditions. We are also eager to see new technologies in mainstream wearable devices, which can add value to wearable platforms and enable further advances in mHealth.

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