Las Vegas is a city that seems to exist in a parallel universe - and even celebrates this with the marketing slogan of “What happens here, stays here.”
For me, this sense of other worldliness is never more apparent than in the feverish media coverage that accompanies CES – the annual Consumer Electronics Show hosted by the city each January.
You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re all now living in the sci-fi future as envisaged by the Jetsons, with technology ushering us towards lives of increasing domestic leisure by way of talking fridges, connected showers that pre-warm your water, or even full-on robot butlers.
Increasingly, CES has also served as a platform for highlighting innovations in healthcare technology, and this year’s show continued that trend. Mobihealthnews has an excellent list here.
But looking at the coverage from Vegas, I can’t help but wonder two things: who are these healthcare innovations actually aimed at? And what needs are they really addressing?
A large number of the ‘health’ products showcased over the last few years have focused on areas that can easily seem like luxuries, explicitly targeted to a wealthy 1 percent leisure class: sleeping and running tend to loom large.
For example, this year brought us the world’s first internet-connected barefoot running shoe, and Nokia’s wifi enabled mattress pad – for those people who need a daily score of how restorative their sleep has been, and who want to connect their bed to their lights and heating in order to move that score ever-upwards.
These are clearly well designed products, but are they going to appeal to the mass market? While they may be objects of desire to some people – does anyone really need them?
Personally, I can’t help but think of Juicero – the $400 machine that promised to revolutionize the business of juice drinking by using a connected device to precisely squeeze out the contents of $8 frozen packs of produce. The company was funded to the tune of $134m, but went under earlier this year when an investigation by Bloomberg highlighted that, actually, you could squeeze the packs by hand.
It’s just the same with healthcare tech. There’s a great quote from Robbie Pearl, CEO of Kaiser Medical Group that sums it up: “All these tech people, they’re just making technologies in search of problems.” And it’s true - a lot of technology lately seems to focus on possible use cases rather than probable use cases.
Develop any product without real input from its target audience and you’re just going to be sleepwalking (or even sleep running…) towards irrelevance.
Looking back at the heralded healthcare innovations from previous years’ CES events just reinforces this perspective. Maybe I’m just not the target market, or maybe I’m just middle-aged and cynical, but I’m not convinced that OMSignal’s “Smart Sports Bra for Mindful Running” (CES health tech, class of 2016), or the Mercedes/Philips steering wheel that monitors your heart (2017) have set the world on fire as yet.
Obviously, it’s unfair to criticize CES and the media for failing to highlight solutions that use technology to meet real patient needs.
The clue is in the name – “Consumer Electronics Show,” and whatever some people may try to argue, patients aren’t consumers. Healthcare can be scary. It has its own specific, technical language. And most healthcare is consumed at times when we are least able to exercise a sense of choice and agency, and to make consumer decisions.
It’s one of the themes we pick up in the research we’ll be publishing in the next few weeks on patient needs, expectations and attitudes towards another of the big areas at CES this year: artificial intelligence.
It’s easy for companies to get caught up in the excitement of technology – and to focus on the perceived desires of “generation now”, a hyper-connected audience of millennials.
But, in our sector, the biggest opportunities to properly develop meaningfully connected solutions lie with healthcare’s “generation right now:” an older (and increasingly ageing) audience, many of whom don’t have the money, the literacy, or the lifestyles that the current crop of exhibitors are targeting.
Maybe one day CES will add a side room for a ‘Patient Electronics Show’ and help shine media attention and investment on more technologies developed in partnership with physicians, patient groups and wider stakeholders. Till then, however – for healthcare, what happens in Vegas will continue to stay in Vegas.