Practice Fusion Founder Launches Wearables Startup

Posted on May 31, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Free EMR vendor Practice Fusion has always been something of a newsmaker. Since its launch in 2005, the company has drawn both praise and controversy for its revenue-generation approach, which has included the analysis and sale of de-identified patient data and advertising to physicians.

But it’d be hard to question Practice Fusion’s success, particularly given that it found its legs during a hyper-competitive period of EMR vendor growth capped by the Meaningful Use incentive program. Over the company’s lifespan, it has grown to serve over 110 million patients, and reportedly supported more than 70 million patient visits over 2015. It also attracted over $150 million in venture and private equity funding. Will it provide a great return for investors, time will tell, but they’ve definitely left their mark on the EHR industry.

At the helm of Practice Fusion until last year was CEO and Founder Ryan Howard. Howard – whom I’ve interviewed now and again over the years — certainly doesn’t lack for confidence or creative thinking. So I was intrigued to learn that Howard has stuck his toe into the wearables market. Clearly, Howard has not wasted time since August 2015, when he was booted out as Practice Fusion CEO. And if he believes a wearables startup can make money in this rapidly-maturing niche, I’m inclined to give it a look.

Howard’s new startup, dubbed iBeat, is creating a watch which constantly monitors and analyzes users’ heart activity. The device, which transmits its data to a cloud platform, can alert emergency medical services and, using an onboard GPS, provide the wearer’s location when a user has a heart attack or their heart slows down below a certain level. Unlike competitor AliveCor, whose electrocardiogram device can detect heart rhythm abnormalities such as atrial fibrillation, it has no immediate plans to get FDA approval for its technology.

iBeat expects to sell the device for less than $200, though if users want the emergency alert service they’ll have to pay an as-yet unnamed extra monthly fee. That puts it smack in the middle of the pack with competitors like the Apple Watch. However, the startup’s focus on cardiac events is fairly unusual. Another unusual aspect to the launch is that Howard is targeting the 50- to 70-year-old Baby Boomer market. (Imagine a more-focused version of the LifeAlert “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” service, which focuses on the 75-plus market, Howard told MobiHealthNews.)

My take on all of this is that there may very well be something here. As I wrote about previously, my own heart rhythm is being monitored by a set of devices created by Medtronic, a set-up which probably cost a few thousand dollars in addition to the surgical costs of implanting the monitoring device. While Medtronic’s technology is doubtless FDA approved, for not-so-serious cases such as my own a $200+ plus smart watch might be just the ticket.

On the other hand, I doubt that uncertified devices such as the iBeat watch will attract much support from providers, as they simply don’t trust the data. So consumers are really going to have to drive sales. And without a massive consumer marketing budget, it will be difficult to gain traction in a niche contested by Apple, Microsoft, Fitbit and many, many other competitors. Not to mention all the competitors in the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” category as well.

Regardless of whether iBeat survives, though, I think its strategy is smart. My guess is that more-specialized wearables (think, I don’t know, iSugar for diabetics?) have a bright future.