In Weight Watchers’ most recent quarterly reports, the company has stated “…the commercial weight loss category continued to be impacted by increasing consumer trial of activity monitors and free apps.” Mobile health (mHealth), an exciting application of the Internet of Things (IoT), is gaining serious momentum in this market. Consumers are the initial drivers of this disruption, but the healthcare and corporate wellness industries’ adoption of mHealth could be even more worrisome for the commercial weight loss segment.
Mobile health products started out as clunky activity monitors and cumbersome electronic logging apps adopted by fitness enthusiasts. Early adopters gladly paid handsome prices for the gadgets or downloaded apps and dealt with inaccuracies, poor performance, and other issues common with emerging technologies.
In fact, a couple of years ago I examined the reviews of hundreds of health and fitness apps and found most of them were rated very low and had scathing comments. These products posed little threat to the commercial weight loss industry as they didn’t work well enough for their core customers.
Predictably, as time has passed, the power of Moore’s law and the speed of agile software development methodology enabled lightning fast iterations and vast improvements in performance, accuracy, costs, and user experience. So mobile health products such as FitBit or RunKeeper have become good enough – minimally viable – for customers of commercial weight loss companies, and they are now more than just “activity monitors and free apps.” Many aim to change behaviors in a more convenient fashion and at a fraction of the cost of mainstream weight loss programs.
Behavior Change is Hard
One counter argument to the oncoming disruption of mobile health is that behavior change is extremely hard and that successful commercial weight loss companies have tried and true methods that achieve results. Thus, mobile health gadgets and apps will be a passing fad. I wholeheartedly agree that behavior change is difficult and even more difficult to achieve at scale. However, the scalability of IT, the fast rate of technology advancements, and the growing amount of top talent working on mobile health are enabling this gap to be closed. Just a couple of years ago, the world wondered if anyone would figure out how to do mobile advertising successfully (admittedly much simpler than behavior change but still challenging) and companies such as Facebook already seem to be quickly figuring it out.
The Challenge is Greater Than “Activity Monitors and Free Apps”
The threat to the commercial weight loss industry also comes from the healthcare industry and corporate wellness programs. In the United States, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) is shifting healthcare business models from fee for service to outcomes-based ones. This means healthcare players, such as providers and payers, now care about what you’re doing in between doctor appointments and nurse visits. And they see mobile health as a way to engage with you about health during this time.
In order to ensure optimal outcomes, they will be glad to provide you with mobile health solutions (e.g., to lose weight, take your medications, etc.) at no or low cost. A parallel argument applies to employers, who are adopting online or mobile-based wellness programs. Corporations want to increase productivity and lower costs. They see one way to do this is by lowering absenteeism and taking a more active role in the health of their employees. In fact, some companies are willing to give financial incentives for employees who join their wellness programs. So, in some cases, the choice is get paid to improve your health or pay the commercial weight loss companies to help you.
The story of disruptive forces doesn’t have to end badly. As we’ve seen in other industries, companies that disrupt themselves or figure out how to leverage it can thrive. In this case, I think mobile health can enable these commercial weight loss companies to expand their market opportunities by reaching new segments of people and to deepen the user engagement and experience with current customers.
However, doing this will take more than just having mobile apps or adding mobile as an ancillary part of current offerings, which many of these companies already do. Mobile health will need to be a core part of the strategy and a truly integrated part of new offerings. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next couple of years.