The mHealth Revolution

by Matt Wickey

It looks like mobile computing is taking over the world. I realize that sounds kind of flippant—but it really is true. The next time you go to a seminar or a class (or a restaurant!) look around and see how many people are checking their smart phones or reading their iPads. In almost every walk of life we see increased acceptance, usage, even saturation of mobile devices. No industry is more impacted by this than healthcare.

We like to think nostalgically of the sacred bond between physician and patient, forgetting for the moment of all the “silent partners” who are also involved. The job of healthcare provider is primarily hands on—poking, probing, testing, listening and diagnosing. It doesn’t seem like mobile computing would have significant impact. That is, however, until you think of a visit to your doctor where your medical records are reviewed on a wireless computer rather than paper forms; your prescriptions are typed and surreptitiously emailed to your pharmacy rather than hand-written; and you can look forward to a time when simple diagnoses might be made by a professional thousands of miles away. With this in mind, our image of the traditional healthcare setting seems almost as quaint as that of the country doctor making house calls with his horse and buggy.

Here are some interesting considerations about the new and evolving field of mHealth:

  • Depending on specialty, anywhere from 16% to 41% of healthcare professionals already use mobile devices daily. And the percentage is increasing.
  • Mobile consumption of medical news climbed by 45% between June 2010 and February 2011. And that is just the news market! Think how those rates might grow as rich functional applications become more prevalent.
  • Applications are becoming available that will allow physicians to monitor patient vital signs (heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature) remotely using a smart phone.
  • The main drivers of mHealth are the wide spread acceptance of smart phones and other mobile devices. Roadblocks include lack of standardization, regulation and market transparency.

And, for those of us who seek to be providers in this market...

  • The iPhone and iPad together have about 90% of the mHealth market. Android penetration is much lower but it is growing. Other mobile platforms appear to be nearly non-existent in this space. Going forward, iOS and Android will be the preferred platforms for many future mHealth applications.

As the mHealth market grows, it will impact and possibly merge with the other fledgling field of telemedicine. This is the delivery of diagnostic health services from a distant location using specialized equipment. There are already significant examples of telemedicine in use. Marquette General Hospital in northern Michigan uses telemedicine to deliver services to some of the more remote areas across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

However, telemedicine is not used only to access remote locations. Some large companies which provide their own health insurance use telemedicine as a benefit for employees in satellite locations. This gives those employees opportunities to enjoy the same offerings as others working at the corporate headquarters. For example, Cisco Systems has a large company run health clinic at its offices in San Jose. Employees from around the country can access services at the clinic remotely from special locations in their local offices. This not only provides great access for employees. It also allows Cisco to realize the savings of covering their own health insurance nationwide.

Telemedicine today usually requires dedicated hardware and networks to provide the necessary services and performance. But, as the technologies underpinning mHealth improve, those requirements will change. Higher transfer rates and cloud-based data stores will drastically improve what can be delivered to mobile platforms. This is how the merging of mHealth and telemedicine will morph into something very different. As a rich stream of health centered data can be shared with mobile devices, the idea of “visiting your doctor” will take on a whole new meaning.

I recently attended a briefing on mHealth that was quite enlightening. There are major mobile network companies who are very active in this field. They see the growth of 4G devices and networks as key to delivering rich applications combining voice and data that will further enable mHealth. There was also an application on display (from a local company, I might add) that allows physicians in the operating room to get surgical consults from other physicians remotely. This application streams video from the surgery, fully encrypted, to a high resolution mobile device in a totally secure session. As I stood intently gazing at the interior of a patient’s stomach neatly displayed on an iPad I realized that our ideas about healthcare delivery are going to change drastically.

I believe that companies that learn now how to contribute to the mHealth revolution stand a good chance of being richly rewarded.
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