Smartphones and tablets are transforming healthcare by shifting control to patients, but the evolution is not without its challenges.
The Future of mHealth is our series that explores opportunities and challenges of mHealth, which aims to put widespread access to healthcare within the reach of those who need it most.
Healthcare challenges are on the rise worldwide. Chronic conditions take an ever-greater toll, and costs are on the rise. But health insurance no longer bridges the gap for many, and healthcare systems struggle to balance the need for top-notch care and innovation against shrinking budgets.
Answering the challenge, many parties in the medical industry are ramping up development of apps and software for mobile devices, which may increase speed and ease the delivery of healthcare to patients who need it most, especially in areas like preventing diseases, managing chronic conditions, and navigating the complexities of the hospital and insurance systems. The payoff could be great, but the incorporation of mobile technology into the complicated healthcare system is not without its perils.
Motivation, Education, and Prevention on the Go
According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and cancer are the most common and costly health problems in the U.S.
Habits like smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, high stress, or excess body weight increase risks for conditions like heart disease that threaten life and health. These diseases represent the largest concentration of healthcare spending, taking a huge toll on both well-being and wallets.
People can largely prevent or control these conditions, however, by instigating healthy changes and staying motivated to stick with them. Mobile health solutions can help consumers achieve this goal, bringing them a step closer to better health through education and motivation, and ultimately streamlining use of the healthcare system.
Apps such as MealSnap provide an instant calorie count when a user snaps a picture of their plate with a smartphone, encouraging healthy eating.
Other apps, such as FitBit and Fooducate, track exercise and calorie intake to help people stay on course with weight loss, while the government-sponsored Text4Health program is proven to help people stay tobacco-free through use of motivating and informational text messages.
Other apps help people track exercise intensity and time, use the GPS in their phones to map running and walking routes, compete against themselves and others to take more steps or perform more activity minutes, and keep a daily diary to identify and avoid triggers for conditions such as migraines and asthma.
Managing Conditions Gets Easier
People can also use mobile tools to actually manage chronic conditions they already have. Today, getting diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or heart disease no longer needs to equal a lifetime of complications and poor health. The blood sugar spikes and falls that accompany unmanaged diabetes, for example, can lead to blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage, but keeping blood sugar on an even keel and following a sound condition management plan can fend off these problems and help people stay in control of their health.
Mobile-based tools are on the way to help people do just that. Soon, people with diabetes will measure blood sugar with a wirelessly connected glucose monitor, such as the one that debuted at the Consumer Electronics trade show this year.
People with heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or asthma will measure blood pressure and blood oxygen levels at home with devices that plug right into their smartphones, quickly identifying potential problems and reporting them directly to their doctor, so they can take action before symptoms flare and problems become critical.
These devices turn the daily measurements that come with chronic condition management into much more than meaningless numbers. People can easily chart and graph blood sugar, blood pressure, breathing and other measurements over time, easily identifying troublesome patterns so they can avoid them in the future.
They also can send information instantly and securely to their doctor, instead of waiting weeks to hand over notes or diaries. This allows for true partnership between patients and physicians, and enables up-to-the-minute care management that could head off problems that land people in critical care.
Navigating a Complicated System Directly Through Your Phone
Consumers increasingly find themselves in the drivers’ seat when it comes to healthcare, and must communicate with providers and insurance companies about tests and procedures, stay on top of screenings, and take the lead in educating themselves about the many factors that affect their health and well-being.
Mobile devices can help this process and successfully navigate the complex healthcare system as solutions ramp up to improve communication. For example, doctors and other practitioners increasingly use text messages to communicate with patients, making it easier and faster for people to reach them.
Major pharmacy chains now offer texting services, so people can refill medication and find out when it’s ready via their smartphone. Consumers can even check emergency department wait times on their smartphone, to ensure the fastest service when minutes count. These innovations save time and money, and help keep healthcare costs down by improving efficiency.
Mobile devices can also facilitate communication between consumers and insurance providers. Apps from health insurance companies help members find a network provider, get coverage information, and manage claims.
Next-generation insurer apps will likely enable instant access to health records, location-aware provider searching, virtual ID cards, cost and quality assessment tools, and personalized health tips and trackers to guide consumers through every step of the healthcare process on their mobile device.
Sensitive Data Presents Security Challenges
But increasing use of mobile health tools means consumers could store more of their personal health information electronically, sparking privacy concerns.
Data breaches in healthcare rose by almost a third last year, with nearly all healthcare organizations reporting at least one breach involving patient information over the past two years.
Mobile health breaches can lead to full-scale identity theft, as medical records often contain critical identifying information, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, full names, and even financial or credit information.
Also, people sharing more information electronically about their medical conditions, treatments and tests, and other health-related details could give rise to mobile health scams. As the mobile health market grows more crowded, consumers will turn to regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration, as well as their own healthcare providers, to curate offerings and ensure their safety and effectiveness.
Consumers will continue to become better educated about their electronic medical record and who can see it, while healthcare providers, hospital systems, insurers and other entities install stronger privacy protection.
Consumers will soon have a wealth of health tools and information at their fingertips on their favorite mobile gadget. Mobile health advances hold great potential to help people improve their health and use the healthcare system more effectively, but these innovations must balance with adequate privacy protection and safety assurances in order to really take off.