Health at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show -- What to Expect

It's the Uber-ization of life, and a growing cadre of patients-cum-health consumers are calling for more convenient, accessible, and lower-cost health care solutions.
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At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which begins next week on January 4, 2016, we'll see a growing array of shiny new things to whet the appetite of car lovers, audiophiles, and videogame addicts. But the fastest-growing area of real estate in the CES footprint is digital health, where at the Sands Convention Center in the Venetian Resort, several hundred developers of wearable technology, remote health monitors, personal emergency response systems, and the sort of hospital-based equipment once the purview of inpatient rooms is now smaller, cheaper, and better than technology used at university hospitals a decade ago.

What's behind the rise of digital health at CES? For one, it's the growth of a DIY culture among consumers, using mobile phones and tablets to manage everyday life, from booking travel to making stock trades, managing photo development and ordering food for home delivery. It's the Uber-ization of life, and a growing cadre of patients-cum-health consumers are calling for more convenient, accessible, and lower-cost health care solutions. A second underlying force driving personal adoption of digital health tools is Americans' growing high-deductible health plan market, where patients are learning to become health care consumers, connecting the dots between self-health care and prevention to avoid more expensive downstream (read: hospital, inpatient) costs. Self-care at home using digital health tech is much happier prospect for this new healthcare consumer.

In the Thanksgiving weekend preprint ads, I noted every single Big Box, discount and electronics retailer was selling, at deep discount, activity trackers, including Fitbit (the Big Kahuna in terms of activity tracking market share), Garmin, Jawbone, Misfit, among others. The Apple Watch is garnering some of this share in 2015, positioned to grow more in 2016. Microsoft's Band, the Withings Activite Watch, and Fossil, which acquired Misfit in November 2015, are all set with big announcements next week at CES. And I've no doubt we will see more new bands competing for the precious human real estate of The Wrist.

Beyond these fitness and wellness bands, though, is a growing category of serious health-ware. I've received pre-show announcements about a device that can measure hemoglobin, important for carrying oxygen to muscles to boost endurance; numerous heart and blood pressure monitors; and, tools to help people dealing with pain - a growing public health issue in the wake of opioid dependency and a growing risk factor for premature death due to overdose.

Sleep - or lack thereof - is a big health risk, and epidemic. Helping people reach the Holy Grail of sleep is an expanding category at CES, including both smart beds and devices to track and help improve sleep. The popular Sleep Number Bed has had convention floor space at CES for several years, and 2016 will be no exception. They will be joined by a new bed from the German company Variowell, which claims to have a bed that helps improve a person's sleep patterns. In addition, vendors of Internet of Things lighting products that aim to help the sleeper ease into a good night's rest through changing light technology, and in-bed and bedside tracking sensors tied to mobile apps for data tracking and coaching tips, will grow the sleep category.

Wearables beyond the wrist, for the rest of the body, will be multiplying on the show floor. Smartwear, textiles embedded with sensors, can do more than gauge an athlete's metabolic burn (and help the exerciser look buff and chic). Smart jewelry embedded with health tracking sensors will also proliferate at CES 2016; we've seen Tory Burch's alliance with Fitbit and Swarovski's with Misfit at past CES shows, and we expect other fashion and blinged out wearable tech for health to attract new consumer adopters beyond the Quantified Self community who may not want to appear to be wearing their health tracking on their sleeve (or wrist).

There will be lots of "baby tech," from pre-pre-natal (fertility tracking and bolstering) to infant onesies that keep baby safe in her crib, like the Mimo baby monitor and app. Expanding on the definition family health, don't be surprised to learn that Fido the dog and Morris the cat will have their own wearable tech to help them stay well. Netatmo's device can help a parent track both their child and their dog.

Beyond niche technology products, some big companies are placing bets in digital health going beyond their core businesses. One new exhibitor in health at CES will be Johnson & Johnson. They won't be marketing baby powder or over-the-counter drugs. Instead, J&J will be talking about innovation and wellbeing. UnitedHealthGroup, a past exhibitor at the convention, will be back next week, triangulating healthy living, health insurance, and health care costs. Philips has made a big bet in digital health, in 2015 as a major presence at South-by-Southwest, and at 2016 CES further deepening the company's position as a digital health player.

I'm a health economist exploring and assessing this fast-morphing digital health landscape. At the end of CES 2016, I'll be asking the question I do each year I attend this manically exciting meeting: what do all these "things" (in light of the growing era of the Internet of Healthy Things) mean for mainstream health citizens' health? The biggest ROI will accrue when the data streaming from these devices get mashed up through algorithms that can inform us users on how to live better in real-time, nudging us to better behaviors - be these adhering to medication regimens, eating nutritious and safe food in healthy portions, staying hydrated, checking our blood glucose in non-invasive painless ways, and keeping us from driving drunk. That's when we will move the needle on health, and health care costs.