The advent of mobile health, better known as mHealth, has already transformed the healthcare technology landscape and will dramatically change the reach and capability of healthcare services in the next several years.
The pace of change has been so rapid that it is difficult to believe that the first iPhone came out just eight years ago.
Today, the smartphone is arguably the most ubiquitous piece of consumer technology. Yet, in a society that communicates, shops, plays and navigates via smartphones, the prevalence of mHealth is less than may be expected. Why?
Dual Approaches to mHealth
To begin to answer that question, it is worth noting that originally mHealth saw its greatest growth in developing countries. In such countries, the smartphone represents the sole piece of advanced technology owned by many residents and is often the only means of communication with a wider world.
With the advent of mHealth applications, individuals in remote areas with no physical access to healthcare professionals or medical facilities can suddenly tap into the knowledge and skills of world class providers globally. Additionally, such developing countries have no data privacy requirements, resulting in lighter weight mHealth applications being developed more rapidly and deployed with less friction.By contrast, the adoption threshold for mHealth in developed countries has always been much higher. For those who live in the midst of physician offices, hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centers, health care has always been a deeply interpersonal experience for which the mobile phone, at first blush, appears a poor substitute.
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At the same time, the regulatory hurdle for healthcare applications is greater with the existence of information privacy laws along the lines of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the U.S. and Data Protection in the U.K. and Europe, and rules enforced by regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S., the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory (MHRA) in the U.K. and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Europe.
Consequently, companies developing mHealth and related applications have taken one of two approaches. Some have created closed telehealth ecosystems and pursued regulatory classification as health care devices, betting that only approved devices would gain mainstream acceptance by providers. Others have built applications and made them available directly to consumers. Those who went directly to consumers were able to leverage the latest technologies, reduce time to market and remain agile in the face of evolving consumer preferences.
In light of these two approaches, the mHealth industry finds itself in a tug-of-war between technologies that are approved but legacy, and those that are not approved but next generation. Providers feel comfortable trusting data from older technologies that consumers do not want to use, while consumers prefer to use newer technologies whose data is viewed as less trustworthy by providers. Further complicating the situation is the matter of making sense of the data captured via mHealth applications. With separate applications for activity monitoring, blood pressure tracking, pulse oximetry, blood sugar monitoring and so forth, there needs to be a way for the various data streams to feed into an overall patient profile where it can be captured, analyzed and provided to care teams in a holistic manner.
Simultaneous Data Collection
As monitoring devices become increasingly sophisticated, small and embedded, the ability to capture accurate, real-time health data via digital wearables, smartphones and watches will grow. Inevitably, providers will start to rely more and more on next generation technologies. However, alongside the burgeoning data streams coming from various mHealth devices and applications, providers will need analysis and reporting platforms that are capable of making sense of the data in real-time.
“The mHealth industry finds itself in a tug-of-war between technologies.”
Simultaneous data collection in the context of mHealth requires a multi-dimensional solution. The data has to be received via secure channel, authenticated, parsed, normalized, stored, incorporated into the patient’s overall record, analyzed and ultimately delivered to the care team in actionable form. Such requirements underline the criticality of next generation population health management (PHM) platforms such as Virtual Health, which enable each of these steps and interfaces with a broad range of mHealth applications.
The healthcare industry is among the last to transcend bricks and mortars, to harness mobility and to tap into the cloud. The Affordable Care Act has accelerated this shift and served as a tipping point. Moving forward, the question is not going to be whether mHealth becomes the new standard, but when. Effective data collection, authentication and analysis solutions are going to be the critical stepping stones that ensure that health care is able to fully realize the potential of mobile technologies sooner rather than later.
Jack Plotkin is chief technology office at Virtual Health.