Mobile health in 2013: from the gym to the doctor’s office

Thanks to a boom in digital health, the smartphone has assumed the role of everything from an ever-present fitness coach to FDA-approved heart monitor. And, as consumers move to mobile platforms, surveys show that more people are not only turning to their mobile devices for health information, they’re quickly imbuing the new technology with a great deal of trust (maybe too much trust given the poor quality of many apps currently available).  A study earlier this month from Royal Philips Electronics found that nearly a third of Americans said they use interactive health applications or symptom checker websites instead of going to the doctor.

But as some point out, the adoption of mobile health apps has been uneven, with most consumers gravitating to those for exercise, diet and weight and doctors indicating interest in, but not necessarily widespread adoption of, mobile apps. Given the fact that general fitness and wellness apps can appeal to a broader audience of healthy consumers and don’t require buy-in from doctors, insurance companies or other institutional players, it makes sense that mobile health, to date, has moved faster for fitness applications than clinical ones.

In 2013, however, mobile health could make its biggest strides yet in the actual delivery of healthcare services —  from disease management to remote health monitoring and more.

More clinical adoption on the horizon

“I think next year is the year we start to see much more clinical adoption,” said Chris Wasden, managing director in the PwC Healthcare Strategy and Innovation Practice. “I think you’re going to see in this next year a lot of announcements that are just more meaningful than the [those] we’ve seen.”

At next month’s Consumer Electronics Show, 25 percent more digital health and fitness gadgets are expected to be on display, with a solid showing from companies behind apps powering medical history management and telemedicine.  But the products themselves are just the beginning — in the last year, the regulatory and institutional landscapes have adjusted in favor of mobile health.

While the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is still expected to provide further clarity on the kinds of health apps it will regulate, it’s already approved a range of apps (at least 75 according to an analysis by MobiHealthNews). Developers still want more information on the scope of health apps the FDA plans to oversee, as well as details on the approval process and its timeframe, but Wasden said its track record on approved apps thus far removes some apprehension as it shows that there’s a somewhat standardized and reliable process. The FDA’s decision earlier this month to approve remote monitoring in a clinical trial was another major milestone and paves the way for increased mobile health adoption in the medical community.

Aside from that, the continued support of the Affordable Care Act and other health IT-related legislation passed under President Obama could give hospitals and doctors new incentives for mobile health apps related to issues like accountability and electronic health records.

Insurance companies go mobile

Insurance companies are also stepping up their games, with mobile platforms that combine their own mobile apps with third-party, consumer-facing apps. For example, earlier this month, Aetna’s (s AET) CEO said his company’s health data syncing platform CarePass would go mobile in March, 2013 to connect its own full-service symptom checking app iTriage with fitness apps like Fitbit and MapMyFitness.

As app options proliferate, healthcare providers and patients need a way to distinguish the good from the bad – especially given reports that many apps overstate their effectiveness or are just thinly based on science. But companies like Happtique are emerging to provide healthcare providers with private app marketplaces that curate and certify top-quality health and fitness apps. Those kinds of platforms could further drive up the role of mobile apps in the medical arena.

An additional obstacle for health app developers, some say, has been the mismatch between the values of the medical community and those of launching a startup. Healthcare providers want documented proven outcomes and startup founders want to iterate fast and get early validation for their ideas. But the rise of health startup incubators, like Rock Health, Startup Health and Blueprint Health is helping to bridge those cultural divides and encourage innovation that satisfies both groups.

There are other challenges to broader adoption of mobile health technologies: patients often download apps only to later ignore them and doctors want more training around liability concerns, workflow changes and how to handle new data. Beyond that, some argue that the people who cost the health system the most are least likely to use new technology. Still, even though a mass shift to mobile health won’t happen overnight, 2012 set the stage for a new wave of mobile adoption by the medical community. Let’s see how much progress it can make in 2013.