With nearly eight billion mobile subscribers on earth and more than one billion in North America alone, increasing numbers of businesses and service providers are focusing on high-tech mobility. The health care industry is tapping into this rapidly expanding phenomenon with such innovations as digitized records, informational “tele-health” apps and wearable devices that transmit a patient’s physical data for medical evaluation. The newly established mHealth – mobile health – platform promises some significant benefits to mobile users, but critics are pointing out several potential problems.The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is one of the primary funding sources for innovations in mHealth development. According to NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins:
“The marriage of mobile technologies and applications is a growing opportunity.”
NIH funds mobile research in a number of health disciplines. Dr. Collins describes the development of connected devices as opportunities to vastly increase global health. These gadgets include mini phone-mounted microscopes that transmit images for disease detection and mobilized pill boxes that alert caregivers when patients take their medication.
Other NIH experts speculate that mobile health care apps “can make a significant difference to public health and health care delivery”. Researchers will have access to multiple sources of data, including their subjects’ activities over extended time periods. NIH also envisions being able to change the quality of public health care in general. For example, mobile tools can be used by diabetics in the management of their disease. Better management of the disease can result in lower hospitalization rates for diabetes patients.
Another benefit of mHealth is financial. Analysts suggest that the new mobility could save the health industry and its patients billions annually. Specifically, Mark Gehring of Asthmapolis, a disease management entity that has developed a mobile app for asthma patients, states that Asthmapolis has helped reduce the need for hospitalization by 70 percent for those using the application. This saves money for patients and their health insurance companies too.
mHealth Concerns & Obstacles
However, where some see expansive vistas in the future for mHealth, others have their sights set on the significant barriers to be overcome. These include:
- App relevance
- Integrating technology into provider systems
The surge in digitized medical records opens the floodgates for potential privacy issues. Although hospitals could save 20 to 30 percent in administrative costs by converting to mobile-ready electronic records, this may expose private information to unauthorized access. Securing this information in a manner that complies with HIPAA standards is an ongoing concern for mHealth application developers.
Additionally, of the approximately 15,000 health-related apps currently available, some are simply not purposeful. One reason is the lack of a clinician’s guidance during app development. Because the programs are specific to the health care industry, they need the focus and knowledge that only a health professional can provide. Other apps do not enhance the effectiveness or efficiency with which the user can complete a desired task in a mobile environment.
Another problem with mHealth is that app development is outpacing some of the health industry’s existing systems. If a cardiac patient has a mobile app that allows the transmission of vital signs, that does not necessarily mean that the doctor’s office has the technology to integrate it. Clinics, hospitals, and other health care facilities have different technological capabilities. One office may still rely on paper files while another might be fully digitized.
Thus, while mobile health applications promise both improvements in the quality of medical services and financial savings, mHealth is still in the developmental stages, and it has some glitches to overcome. As with any emergent technology, watching mHealth in action is the best way for developers to address security, relevance and incompatibility issues.
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