Mobile health technology—also known as mHealth— is steadily creeping into the healthcare industry; it’s ushering in new patient engagement opportunities and creating broad conversations about device reliability and data security. In 2013, there were more than 43,000 health-related applications in the iTunes app store alone. More than 16,000 of those are directly related to patient health and treatment. But despite the growing number of health apps, wearable fitness trackers and biometric smart clothing, some experts argue that most of these commercial apps and devices are novelty items, and warn that the mHealth industry is still very young and has several potentially dangerous grey areas that still need to be addressed.
In consequence of limited functionality, questionable data security methods and unreliable readings, the current scope in which these tools are being used is limited. However, once the technology progresses and people implement the apps and devices into their daily routine, researchers said mHealth can push users to take control of their personal health and solve the timeless struggle of getting patients interested in their day-to-day well-being.
“I think the industry is embracing mHealth, or starting to, because they see a lot of potential to improve patient outcomes and increase their own ability to render cost-effective care,” Grant Leffingwell, a usability researcher at Battelle Memorial Institute, said. “But there are going to be some pitfalls as well if it’s not done right.”
Personalizing Patient Treatments
As medical technologies steadily improve, health professionals are looking at ways to personalize and improve the treatment methods available to patients, which leads researchers to develop more intimate forms of outpatient care.
Throughout the last several years there has been a trend in the hospital and medical industries to decrease the amount of inpatient admissions (it was down to 111 admissions per 1,000 people in 2011 from 123 per 1,000 in 1991), and increase outpatient care, according to an analysis of American hospitals by Avalere Health. Outpatient care is cheaper and tends to be more effective because some patients can heal faster at home around their families and familiar comforts, rather than at a disease-festering clinical environment.
“I usually say that nobody wants to be in a hospital; the longer you’re there, the more you’re at risk for so many other things,” William Rusnak M.D., a family medicine resident physician in Philadelphia, said. “I think the hospital is probably one of the worst places for anybody to be on Earth, and the shorter duration you can be there the better—especially if you’re old, frail or your immune system is rather weak.”
This is why some experts, such as Scott Sheaf, a senior research scientist at Battelle, see mHealth becoming a popular patient management option for physicians. Sheaf said he foresees the technological trend getting people out of clinical environments and having a positive impact on patient health moving forward, but that big changes in outpatient care won’t be seen for another five to 10 years.
In the near term he predicts that doctors will see changes in patient behavior and treatment compliance, especially when it comes to chronic disease management.
“I think independent of all the perceived security, privacy and reliability issues you might be able to throw at these new mHealth devices, the positive aspect of all this is if you have something in your pocket that tracks the number of steps you take, or how far you’re running, or what your blood pressure is, or what your heart rate is, that in itself makes people think about their health and changing their behavior,” Sheaf said.
FDA-Approved Health Applications
The FDA is slowly addressing various reliability and security issues that researchers are pointing out.