Mobile health care: Its (almost) here


Are we at the tipping point for widespread adoption of mobile health care solutions?  Device usability, power and ubiquity have improved immensely. Mobile networks now cover virtually all of the globe.  And, social networking sites are now a driving force in community-building for tens of millions of people.  Yet, this would not be the first time that expectations have exceeded what is technically and behaviorally possible in the short term.   

Wireless health care delivers major benefits to the 3 Ps: patients, providers and payers.  It speeds diagnosis and treatment, extends services to under-served regions and saves doctors’ and nurses’ time, all compelling factors for over-burdened, expensive health care systems which must cope with aging populations. Mobile health care has many appealing applications for major disease areas like heart disease and diabetes in terms of treatment compliance, remote diagnostics and community-building.

The Economist magazine recently published an excellent overview on the latest developments in wireless health care.  Below are some of  the highlights.  The market-research firm Kalorama Information estimates that the US market for wireless health care devices and services will be $9.6B in 2012, up from $2.7B in 2007. Importantly, significant players like GE, Sprint and Virgin have begun entering the market bringing new applications, scale and credibility. Already,  Apple offers thousands of health-related applications in their App Store.

Mobile health care can already claim successes, particularly in the emerging world.  For example, Medicall Home, a Mexican firm that provides medical consultations by mobile phone, has signed up millions of customers. Some applications have been so successful in the developing world that they are now being adopted in the rich world too. Voxiva, an American firm that has set up mobile health systems in Rwanda and Peru, is helping launch Text4Baby, a public-health campaign to educate pregnant mothers (they receive free text messages with medical advice).  T4B will soon become the biggest deployment in the world.  Virgin HealthMiles is using online social networks to enable friends and family to encourage (or nag) patients electronically on weight loss and exercise.  Thousands of patients already participate in Facebook communities to seek medical support and information.

Fully leveraging these new solutions will not be easy. Firstly, wireless health care will require a standardized Electronic Health Record that can be shared by all health care providers. This remains to be created.  Technical issues continue to hamper system reliability and device inter-operability on existing 3G networks.  To reduce risks (and legal exposure), all devices will need to seamlessly, privately and securely operate on all networks with 99.9% or better reliability.  While tremendous strides have been made with wireless devices, they will still need to demonstrate better performance in terms of usability and battery life in order to support health care applications.  

Like the adoption of other technologies, the human element looms large.  Patients – particularly the elderly, the largest consumers of health care – will need to embrace new technologies and make the necessary behavioral changes to use them. Furthermore, their health care providers will also need to be wired, compliant and integrated through standardized EHRs.  Given that up to 25% of all physician offices in some geographies are not connected to the web, ensuring close to 100% compliance will take time.  Finally, though technology exists to ensure patient security and privacy, additional safeguards will have to be developed to keep personal information safe.

Given its real and measurable benefits to multiple stakeholders, mobile health care is poised for growth.  As soon as the technical, standards and human issues are sorted out, a broader roll out can be expected.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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