Mobile Medicine

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With tabloid newspapers keen to report on SMS-RSI, smartphone addiction, and headphone oblivion, you’d be forgiven for concluding that mobile phones are bad for our health. But mobile technology could actually be good for us – especially when it’s designed with our health in mind.

Consumer enthusiasm for using smartphones, coupled with the growth of M2M technology, means mobile has the potential to revolutionise the way we’re provided with healthcare.

An ‘mHealth’ solution could be anything from an SMS service that makes sure patients don’t forget to show up for their appointments, to an internet-connected device that lets doctors monitor patients’ health remotely.

“The potential for innovation is massive, as is the potential for real health benefits for patients,” says Anthony Cox, author of Juniper Research’s study Mobile Health & Fitness: Monitoring, App-enabled Devices & Cost Savings 2013-2018. “But the marketplace is very fragmented. mHealth can be divided between bespoke systems and systems that use the patient’s smartphone. The latter may be easier to bring to market, following the trend for app-enabled fitness devices, but may lack some of the advanced functionality of bespoke systems.”

There is also a fast-growing market for consumer-focused mHealth technologies – such as wearable devices and mobile apps – that promote fitness, healthy eating, or self-monitoring of health issues. This market, says Cox, is growing quicker, thanks to a highly motivated user base.

In terms of formal healthcare in the UK, successive health ministers have sung the praises of mHealth as a policy direction, and well they might – one Oxford University study puts the cost-saving of a mobile-centric NHS at £750m per year, while Juniper’s report forecasts a saving of $36bn over the next five years.

“In many ways the technology that is needed is already there,” says Stephen McMillan, director at PwC, and co-author of the recent mHealth in the UK: Paths for Growth report. “However, providing all of these solutions and infrastructure will not facilitate widespread roll-out of mHealth by itself. There are several barriers that need to be addressed – such as building the knowledge among healthcare professionals of what’s available,” he says.

Another barrier is the lack of standards, according to Chuck Parker, executive director of the Continua Health Alliance – a non-profit organisation working to bring stakeholders together to standardise health technology.

“With standardisation, you get economies of scale and the prices drop,” says Parker. “People are investing in their own equipment. It’s a unique situation where people are asking ‘how can I link myself to my physician?’ Again, this is where standards need to apply. We’re able to capture data on a range of health issues but we need an easy way for it to flow to the physician’s office.”

The scale required to provide healthcare to a country’s population means that cost-saving is a constant preoccupation, particularly when it comes to the political hot potato that is the NHS. The appeal of using smartphones to both keep patients out of hospital and allow relatively healthy people to self-monitor their status is therefore obvious. In the next few years, expect health to prove to be a market in which the mobile hype has some serious substance behind it.