AT&T announced recently that they currently support 13 million so-called “emerging devices” on their network, which are consumer electronics which have embedded connectivity or work in tandem with existing smartphones. AT&T Emerging Device Organization launched in 2008 with the mission of “introducing wireless capabilities into a wide variety of emerging wireless devices beyond the traditional handset.”

The company recently announced the appointment of its first chief medical information officer (CMIO), Dr Geeta Naggar. Additionally, AT&T has partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and American Association of Diabetes Educators to launch a new mHealth initiative to test mobile devices for diabetes self-management.

Some examples of the companies developing the 13 million emerging devices include Zephyr Technologies which struck a deal to embed AT&T 3G/4G technology inside its body-worn sensors. BlueLibris is an “On Star for people”, allowing device owners to press a button to talk and transmit medical data such as heart rate and blood pressure. AT&T is providing Vitality GlowCaps wireless network connectivity for the intelligent pill caps designed to help patients take medicines regularly using phone call or text message reminders.

Separately, AT&T announced it will be redesigning its 2,200 stores to include a “wall” featuring these emerging devices, presumably including mobile health devices and wearable sensor technologies. This is a very big deal for start-ups in the mobile health sector, everybody should be trying to get their products on the “wall”, and its an even bigger deal for the consumer patient who can now access body computing devices at a relatively low cost.

This move will likely be considered a direct threat by Apple and I predict it won’t be long before we see a similar wall at Apple Stores featuring every connected health device available, a topic we addressed last week on iMedicalApps.

It’s also reasonable to presume Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and other competitors in the brick and mortar cellular business will follow AT&T’s lead and welcome developers of emerging devices to put their products on their shelves. They will also likely embed their proprietary 3G/4G technology into these consumer health products to create additional monthly revenue from existing subscribers.

While the Smartphone itself is a very powerful mobile computing device, if it can be bypassed in the transmission of critical patient data, this would remove a layer of complexity in the workflow of mHealth technologies and services. The companies with the best chance of emerging as best-in-breed mHealth providers may well be those thinking beyond the smartphone app today.