I recall a couple of years ago walking through the aisles at the mHealth Summit in Washington D.C., I was amazed at all the different exhibitors (181 listed in the program guide) many of whom were selling (in their words) the next great solution that would revolutionize health care. I’m sure some of them did have great products, but as I explored further, I found many offered a very niche solution, which failed to demonstrate how they’d have a revolutionary impact. Many of the vague or flimsy solutions suggested mHealth was just the latest rage, and companies were simply trying to get something out there to attract market attention.

Fast forward to June, 2016 when the American Medical Association’s CEO, James Madara” shocked the digital health community by stating “From ineffective electronic health records, to an explosion of direct-to-consumer digital health products, to apps of mixed quality – it’s the digital snake oil of the early 21st century.”  The idea that digital health could be considered “snake oil” was a smack in the face, but it reminded me of my time walking those halls years ago at the mHealth Summit.

Interestingly enough, “snake oil” actually started off as a true medical cure brought over to the United States by Chinese railroad workers in the 1800s. It consisted of the oil of the Chinese water snake that is rich in omega-3 acids which help to treat arthritis and bursitis. Only later on did fake snake oil tonics appear; touted to be a cure-all, it failed to provide any real health benefits.

Which version of snake oil describes digital health? Rock Health reported that in 2014 there was $4.3B in venture funding for digital health, and in 2015 investments rose to $4.5B – if nearly $9B has being invested in digital health over the last couple of years, surely most of that wouldn’t be considered snake oil – right?

That got me thinking why some of these digital health products could be considered snake oil. Are they truly shams, or is it something else?  I think the problem is that many may be following Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology where you get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) out to market quickly and then refine based upon customer feedback. Maybe that can work, but it’s also possible you will develop something that doesn’t solve a real market need. In the rush to get to market, due diligence and basic product development practices can get lost…Chinese water rich snakes lose out to fake tonics.

To help weed out those snake oil tonics, here’s a budding digital health entrepreneur’s tool. First, spend a little time with either Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas or Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to quickly help define your business model strategy (get the big picture). Second, focus on the actual product – for this think about:

  • Who is your target market?
    • Consumers, patients, providers, payers?  You can’t be all things to all people, and you can waste a lot of money trying.
  • What problem are you solving?
    • Remember, customer’s don’t care about your solution; they care about their problems. Preliminary market research can help you understand your customer’s needs.
  • What is your solution?
    • This doesn’t have to be a full product requirements document, but you should be able to list your top features.
  • How are you differentiated from others?
    • What is your unique value proposition? What’s your elevator pitch that includes the customer’s experience?
  • How does your product/service fit into existing work-flows?
    • Do you need to integrate with others?  Getting people to change behavior is rare, so understand where you can adapt to their world (this is especially true for providers).

Creating a simple one page product canvas can help with product ideation or product innovation as it will force you to really think through what you hope to accomplish. Product development consists of everything from defining the strategy all the way through execution and implementation.

In future posts I will focus on specific aspects of product development that are relevant to digital health and provide some insights and tools intended to help you revolutionize the health care market!  If you are interested in learning more about Product Development there are a number of great resources such as the Association of International Product Marketing and Management (AIPMM) and the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) that can help guide you in creating a great digital health product or solution.

Using a well-defined process based on proven methods will help you be more successful in delivering products that are truly revolutionary and not just snake oil.

Dan is a digital health evangelist with a BS in Industrial Engineering, an MBA, and an MS in Health Informatics along with 20+ years’ experience in product development, innovation, and marketing.   Connect with Dan on LinkedIn  or via email