Mobile phone and health – mHealth – Part 1

In continuing my series on the social impact of the mobile phone, I would like to touch upon health. Staying healthy is important to everyone, including the government. A healthy population is a more productive population.  With the mobile phone now in the hands of more than 5Billion people, can this be used to help improve the one single element that all of us care about – health?

That said, how is this for painting with a broad brush – “Mobile technology is having a deep impact on the health of people” (in a positive way of course). Too broad of a brush stroke? Perhaps.

But it is tough to argue against the fact that the mobile phone is an excellent tool to deliver healthcare related information. This information highway is two way, in that the apps that enable healthcare related transactions can not only be used to deploy content from the source, but also can be used to enable interaction from the user as well. Very recently, I attended a seminar at work conducted by the health insurer Cigna and the topic was “How to cope with Stress and Burnout at Work”. It was a “Lunch & Learn” session and suffice it to say, I was there for the free munchies :). . I happened to sit with a colleague who showed me this cool app that allows one to measure stress levels. After entering some details, I had to press my finger against the phone camera for a period of time. Mind you, the camera should have a flash. The app could measure heart-rate and eventually read out ‘stress’ levels. I checked out good – my stress levels were low. But, my colleague was not so lucky!

It struck me that this self-diagnosing app was a useful tool. I know a vendor who uses the CalorieMeter app everyday. He uses it to control his calorie intake, eat healthy and consequently, lose weight.  These so called wellness apps are in many cases, helping people stay healthy. A survey of these apps by MobiHealthNews in 2011 reveals the following trend for such apps that were downloaded from Apple’s App Store.

The number of health related apps has exploded. There were approximately 3000 such apps in Feb 2010 and this number had swelled by more than 4X by April 2012. And that number is still growing.

And it can be assumed that the predominant users of these apps are in the developed world. But, just these statistics are quite amazing. In the developed world, where it can be safely assumed that healthcare delivery is far more advanced compared to the developing or under-developed nations, if the usage is so high – then imagine the possibilities.

There are initiatives underway in many countries to use mobile technology to deliver adjunct healthcare services. The mobile phone is certainly no substitute to a doctor or a nurse, but can definitely serve as a tool that can be the eyes and ears of healthcare providers. There are many ways that the veritable cell phone is presently being used under the auspices of m-Health. Below (in no particular order), are some examples.

  • Wellness Apps – These are apps that allow one to monitor various aspects of their health such as calories consumed, stress levels etc
  • Remote patient tracking
  • Self management of patient health
  • Reporting of urgent health needs
  • Updating and verification of digital medical records, accessible to health care providers and pharmacists
  • Delivery of health insurance and savings products
  • Monitoring and surveillance of disease outbreaks for more timely reporting of symptoms and containment of epidemics
  • Crisis mapping after natural disasters
  • Providing real time information on available health facilities and resources
  • Access to health emergency services and rapid response systems
  • Medical advice, reminders, counseling, monitoring, simple diagnoses
  • Focusing on areas where only limited physical infrastructure is available, such as remote and rural areas, including telenursing, teleradiology, telepsychiatry, and tele-education
  • Fostering learning and knowledge exchange among health professionals
  • Medical knowledge repositories, health information wikis, expert crowdsourcing
  • Retrieving best practices, international standards, and patient histories from other health care professionals

These are just some use cases. In my next post on this topic, I plan to cover some specific examples and also discuss the some risks.

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