2009: A year of mHealth buzz, hype

By Brian Dolan
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Christine Chang, OvumBy Christine Chang, Healthcare Technology Analyst, Ovum

mHealth: The Buzzword of 2009

The 2009 healthcare technology buzzword was ‘mHealth,’ or mobile health. Ovum has seen a moderate, but steadily increasing interest in mobile health over the year as the phrase began appearing with increasing frequency in the media and at conferences. Unlike the last healthcare IT buzzword, real time radio frequency identification (RFID), a type of mobile health technology which reached a ‘craze’ and then a subsequent ‘fizzle,’ Ovum does not expect the mobile health trend to end. But like all buzzwords, some of the excitement is hype, while other aspects ring true.

Without a doubt, healthcare is going mobile. In an industry where just over a decade ago, cell phone use was essentially banned within hospitals and physician offices, mobile technologies seem to be the one area where adoption of healthcare IT faces less end-user adoption barriers. While there are still challenges to adoption, including emerging applications and resistance from IT departments, end users are clamoring for devices because they make the lives of clinicians easier. The convenience mobile devices offer is simply too compelling. However, Ovum believes this phenomenon is not unique to healthcare. In fact, it is a simple ripple effect of what is happening in the consumer market in general and is an activity reflected in many other verticals such as banking and government. Though, Ovum does concede that they are aspects of mobility that are unique to healthcare.

The Hype: That mHealth is its own special entity

The consumer market has embraced mobile devices for a number of years now for their convenience and connectivity. Today an astounding majority of people in the world have access to some sort of mobile device. Among the OECD countries in 2007, for example, the average number of mobile subscribers per 100 inhabitants was 96 and it is increasingly common for individuals in developed countries to have more than one mobile device. This consumer trend is pushing its way into the healthcare sector and making it easier for adoption in the provider environment. Mobile health is not arising by itself; it leverages the fact that nearly every one of its stakeholders already has a mobile device. Doctors, nurses and patients are bringing their own devices into hospitals and offices, using them for personal and, increasingly, work-related activities. But when reading about mHelath, too often it seems that many forget that mHealth is part of this larger phenomenon.

What concerns Ovum the most, however, is the need to call it ‘mHealth.’ mHealth is poorly defined as it is and the healthcare IT industry does not need another confusing term to add to the EHRs, EMRs, PHRs, telehealth, telemedicine, PACS, alphabet soup, to name only a few of the currently available healthcare technologies. Furthermore, the term seems unnecessary. Eventually, a mobile device will be as crucial to the everyday practice of medicine as a stethoscope. (In fact, today there are already mobile devices that can act as stethoscopes.) Creating this additional distinction with the name mHealth emphasizes a division between ‘normal’ healthcare and mobile healthcare, where there should be none. Compare mHealth, for instance, to AT&T’s unsuccessful ‘mLife’ campaign released in early 2002: an abbreviation for mobile life, the term is no longer in use, or even remembered.

Thus, mHealth is predominately a marketing gimmick which will help increase attention on the technologies in the near term, but Ovum believes the term will fall out of use once widespread adoption is reached. Nevertheless, Ovum does recognize that this marketing tool serves a purpose (albeit temporary) and is being used in other industries. Healthcare is following in the footsteps of mobile banking (mbanking) and mobile government (mgovernment).

The Truth: mHealth is different and will grow

To be fair, however, healthcare is different from the consumer market and does require additional attention and/or innovation in certain areas. The ‘bells and whistles’ of a mobile device, for instance, have slightly different uses in healthcare. MP3 players allow physicians to listen to a recording of a heart beat or cough rather than just music. Cameras photograph injuries that would otherwise take a lot of time to explain. The ability to zoom in on a photo is particularly useful when looking at an x-ray. And of course, texts, emails and the phone help improve communication.

Ovum foresees clinicians using mobile devices to look up and enter patient information on EHRs, make diagnosis and treatment decisions when patients are other locations, order medication, receive alerts, review EKGs and dictate into EHRs. Patients could keep health information on their phones for access in case of emergency while also logging wellness information like diet and exercise details. Countless other uses have yet to be developed. This wide range of possibilities for mobile devices is particularly attractive to providers in inpatient settings who are moving from patient to patient during the day, though outpatient providers and patients will also benefit from mobile health.

The plethora of healthcare-related iPhone applications already available and the increasing number of vendors making their products available on smartphones demonstrates the growing demand for mHealth.

The Reality: Hospitals can’t keep IT out but adoption will take time

Hospitals, like most enterprises, have tried for years to keep only certain, approved technology inside their four walls. All other technologies were effectively banned. Yet, from cell phones ten years ago to iPhones today, these bans eventually break down. Healthcare IT departments, like the IT departments of other businesses, are realizing that they cannot limit the mobile devices their users want to use; some physicians will prefer Blackberrys, others iPhones or Droids while another segment will be content with their basic cell phone, but all will use something. Instead of focusing on keeping devices out, IT needs to concentrate its attention on properly managing the technology.

Still, IT departments will have some time to adjust to this paradigm. While mHealth will grow, it will take time. For healthcare organizations that have yet to deploy EHRs or are in their early stages, there is no EHR data to retrieve on a mobile device or other yet. Privacy and security, like in other areas of healthcare IT, will continue to be a concern – a manageable one, but one nonetheless. Finally, the number of mHealth products will have to grow and improve. Ovum would not be surprised if, in their rush to meet the mHealth trend, technology vendors ‘forget’ the integral characteristics of mobile devices that consumers prefer when designing their mHealth products for a healthcare audience, resulting in poorer quality applications and devices. Clinicians and patients are still consumers and will expect the same, if not better, experience from mHealth products that they do in the consumer market.