Mobile Health Apps Are on the Rise

The health care sector is in the early stages of a potentially disruptive era, with technological change in the industry being driven by the growth of smartphones and the number of connected devices readily available. More and more, apps are assuming a larger role in the system. There are currently over 6,000 health- and medicine-related apps in the Apple App Store, and, as we discuss in a new report at GigaOM Pro, mobile health is creating new possibilities for clinicians and patients to manage their care and track important health information.

Though still a somewhat loosely defined term, The World Health Organization calls mHealth “an area of electronic health (eHealth)” that is “the provision of health services and information via mobile technologies such as mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).” Mobile Health Initiative (mHI) founder Peter Waegemann, in speaking at the mHI event in Washington, D.C. this year, said that mHealth “focuses on behavioral and structural changes.” Whereas eHealth is focused on technology to drive the change, “the vision for mHealth includes collecting data through text, images, emails and supporting patient-hood. As more and more connected devices come to market, we expect the definition of mHealth to broaden in scope.

Where are mobile health apps making an impact? The iPad is one area. The device’s high-resolution screen allows for diagnosis through the use of medical imaging applications. Stanford University School of Medicine, for instance, is now using the device for instruction with first-year medical students. Others are using the device to combine electronic medical records (EMRs) with a range of other clinical tools, and we may see more use of the iPad as EMR devices and medical imaging converge to create a platform for a physician-patient interface.

On the consumer side of the industry, smartphones are impacting behavioral change in patients: A growing number of apps exist that help individuals track nutritional and fitness levels, and patients can often use this data to link, via social networking, to individuals with similar health goals and/or illnesses. Social networking-related projects are growing by the day, in fact. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, co-sponsors TuAnalyze, a site for tracking, sharing and analyzing data on hemoglobin A1c levels by diabetics. The site’s mapping tools allow users to see how their geographic area matches up with other regions of the country. The use of an online social network is mobilized to encourage diabetics to monitor themselves and motivate individuals in their region or neighborhood to do the same.

The key question is how much are people willing to pay for these applications, and who will use the data to drive behavioral change in a manner that makes economic sense. Research on everything from cardiovascular disease to asthma is showing the connection between the environment and health outcomes. An early signal of what might be possible in this space is the platform Asthmapolis. Asthmapolis is a GPS inhaler-tracker app that enables users to track their own asthma conditions. The technology contributes to the public health understanding of the connections between asthma and place (where environmental triggers may be greater in some locations versus others).

If we think about mHealth in a more expansive manner, we can see how the insights from psychology, behavioral economics, persuasive technologies and neurology can be used to inform app development in ways that could revolutionize how we think about behavioral change. For the most part, the paradigms used in the health care arena for behavioral change remain woefully behind the times. What development of mHealth apps could inadvertently do is open a space for cross-fertilization of the health sciences with other disciplines — neuroanthropology, persuasive technology and behavioral economics, for instance. It could also have more impact on how we think about behavioral change for health as much as technology itself.

Read the full report here.