According to data from Pew Research, over 81% of Americans own smartphones. The global smartphone penetration rate as a share of the population was 44.9% in 2020. This figure amounts to 3.2 billion people on the planet who use smartphones. It isn’t a surprise that mobile technology continues to disrupt many industries, including healthcare. Mobile technology in healthcare isn’t just about mobile devices in healthcare. It is broader and includes telemedicine, cloud-based electronic health records (EHRs), biometric sensors, telemedicine solutions, wearables, and much more.
How Mobile Devices are Transforming Healthcare
The use of mobile devices in healthcare can be the difference between life and death. Mobile technology and healthcare are now inextricably intertwined. Below are some examples of how mobile medical technology is transforming healthcare.
Healthcare Mobile Technologies – Access to Specialists
Specialists are rarely present in emergency rooms. They are usually on call and are only contacted when patients present symptoms or injuries that require a specialist. Unfortunately, the time it takes for a specialist to get to the emergency room can lead to the loss of life. Mobile technologies in healthcare now make it possible for an attending physician to access a specialist and get real-time advice on what interventions to take to secure the patient’s life.
Healthcare Mobile Technologies – Medical History
Mobile technologies in healthcare, such as mobile health apps and electronic health records, also allow emergency room physicians to tell everything they need to know about a patient. This characteristic is useful if the patient is unconscious or has an injury that hinders effective communication.
Healthcare Mobile Technologies – Bridge Geographic Barriers
Mobile technologies in healthcare are bridging geographic barriers and connecting patients with patients hundreds of miles away. Cancer patients in rural areas can consult oncologists remotely. Diabetes patients can monitor their blood glucose without having to visit a clinic. Patients on a weight loss plan can share their daily meal and exercise logs, and vitals with physicians without having to go in for a check-up.
For centuries, the only way to get medical treatment was to visit a physician at their workplace, or the physician would make a house call. Today we have services like HealthTap and Doctor on Demand that help patients consult physicians remotely. There are also lots of reliable medical content websites where people can look up disease and symptom information.
Healthcare Mobile Technologies – Preventive Action and Proactive Self-Management
Mobile technologies in healthcare have made it possible for people to proactively manage their health and well-being. Using mobile apps and wearable devices, people can now collect, review, and analyze their medical data. With this data, they also take preventive actions to ensure they remain healthy. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), potentially preventable deaths are among the five leading causes of death. Heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular diseases, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and unintentional injuries account for almost two-thirds of deaths from all causes in the United States. Mobile health applications and wearables are giving people a fighting chance and improving mortality around the world.
Additionally, for decades, the only way to know how patients were doing after they left a hospital or clinic was to ring them up and find out how they were doing. This was an ineffective and unreliable method to collect health data. With mobile health apps and wearables, physicians now receive vital actionable data. Physicians also get alerted when there is a serious problem that requires their attention.
Furthermore, patients are notoriously bad at retaining information and advice from a doctor. According to one study, “0-80% of medical information provided by healthcare practitioners is forgotten immediately.” Mobile apps and other health portals allow patients to communicate securely with doctors. They can seek reminders, clarifications, and report on medication side effects from the comfort of their homes.
There is a great improvement in the patient’s ecosystem where all parties involved in the management of a patient’s health can get real-time access to data and collaborate to ensure the best health outcomes.
The possibilities of smartphone use in healthcare are truly limitless.
Reasons Mobile Technologies in Healthcare is Transformative
But, why are mobile technologies in healthcare so transformative. Why is healthcare mobile technology leading to such profound changes in the way healthcare is delivered? We offer a few insights below.
The protection and promotion of consumer interests have led them to demand to have all types of information, including health information, at their fingertips. According to a recent Accenture Digital Health Survey, younger generations are dissatisfied with many aspects of traditional healthcare. They are increasingly looking for health services that satisfy their expectations for convenience, efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency. Mobile technologies in healthcare are filling this need and driving the transformation.
The health care system is evolving, and employers are looking for cost-effective ways to limit spending on health plans while ensuring their employees remain healthy and productive. This need is leading to more focus on value-based health care – a system where the remuneration of healthcare providers is based on the health outcomes of patients and service quality. Typical value-based healthcare contracts split the risk between insurance companies and healthcare providers.
Mobile technologies in healthcare help providers improve outcomes and in the process, earn income, and qualify for incentives. The concept has already been proven, and there are countless examples of providers that have used healthcare mobile technology to improve health outcomes in value-based care models.
Value-based care models leveraging mobile technologies are expected to help the US improve its healthcare outcomes. Despite the biggest spending on healthcare among developed countries, the US has the worst health outcomes. Six out of ten Americans suffer from at least one chronic condition, while four out of ten suffer from more than one.
The savings from value-based care models riding on mobile technologies come from:
- Better application of evidence-based decision making, leading to bespoke treatment plans
- Early discovery and proactive management of risk factors.
- Improved patient engagement and better chronic condition management.
- Fewer redundant or duplicated examinations and procedures.
- Enhanced care coordination, fewer complications, and in-hospital stays.
- Informed referrals and best location of service provision, for example, using walk-in clinics and remote care sites as opposed to emergency rooms, when suitable.
- More prescriptions of generic drugs when reasonable.
- Healthcare standardization and the use of Centers of Excellence to replicate successes.
Focus on Social Determinants of Health
The conditions in which people live and that influence their health status are known as social determinants of health. These conditions include socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, transport, neighborhood, physical environment, education, and social support networks. To improve health and reduce longstanding inequalities in health care, it is vital to effectively address the social determinants of health.
(Image source: Kaiser Family Foundation)
The increased focus on these issues by governments around the world has brought into focus the role of mobile technologies in improving some of these conditions. For example, through telemedicine, access to healthcare has been improved. Also, technologies in other industries such as the online taxi industry have made it easier for people to get transport to health facilities.
Examples and Benefits of Mobile Devices in Healthcare
Let’s consider some examples of mobile devices in healthcare.
A wide range of wearable biometric sensors is now available on the market. They include wrist bands, bracelets, headbands, skin patches, and clothing. They are designed to be unintrusive and provide regular monitoring and logging of bodily functions. The health metrics captured are either relayed wirelessly to a cloud server or uploaded when the device is connected to a computer. Current technology can measure over a dozen biometric parameters as shown below.
(Image source: National Institutes of Health)
Lab on a Chip
Beyond biometric sensors, the computing power of smartphones makes it possible for a wide range of lab tests to be made available in the palm of one’s hand. For example, they are now being used as detection and controlling tools in the field of microfluidics – the control, and manipulation of fluids within geometrically constrained spaces (picoliters). Breath, sweat, tears, blood, urine, and saliva can all be “digitized” and tested for pathogens or disease using a special smartphone containing biosensors and microprocessors. The smartphone is essentially used for Point of Care testing.
The ever-increasing quality of smartphone camera lenses and screen resolution has opened new medical possibilities. We cite a few examples below:
- Eye exams: refractive error can be tested by looking through a lens connected to a smartphone.
- Ear infections: Ear problems can be tested using a smartphone with an attached otoscope.
- Cervical cancer: Can be detected using a smartphone to analyze the optical properties of cancerous cervical tissue.
- Teledermatology: Smartphones are being used to compare skin images to databases of cancerous skin lesions to diagnose skin cancer.
Challenges to the Adoption of Mobile Technologies in Healthcare
From the preceding examples, it is clear that there is great potential for mobile technologies in healthcare to completely re-engineer healthcare. Hypotheses around the potential of mobile technologies in healthcare are supported by the predictions of industry analysts who project that this market will reach $230 billion by 2027. However, there are silly several issues that are throttling this growth as explained below.
The current healthcare model in the US that emphasizes a fee for service is in direct conflict with the possibilities of mobile technologies in healthcare. A value-based healthcare model would save billions in hospital visits. For example, hypertension is one of the most common diagnoses. Converting all hypertension cases to remote monitoring using smartphones would save the system billions of dollars and be much more convenient for patients. However, there is little incentive for healthcare providers to implement such a system.
Handheld devices in healthcare are expensive. While the cost of smartphones that come with health sensors is coming down. It is still too pricey for many people. The same goes for wearables and other mobile health gadgets. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are still about 20% of Americans who don’t own a smartphone and about 4.5 billion people in the world still can’t afford one.
Privacy and Security Concerns
In order to fully realize the promise of mobile technologies in healthcare, patients, caregivers, and service providers must have confidence that mobile health systems are secure. No one wants their private health metrics or that of their patients to fall into the wrong hands. The mhealth regulatory framework still lags behind technological developments. Regulators need to up their game and put measures in place to protect user data.
Finally, a critical challenge to the implementation of mobile technologies in healthcare is ensuring the usability of data for consumers and providers. The sheer volume of data collected by mobile and electronic health applications can easily overwhelm data consumers and systems. Analytics tools need to be designed in such a manner that only actionable intelligence is displayed to end-users. Also, providing patients with more health metrics is not a guarantee of positive outcomes. Sometimes it leads to unforeseen negative outcomes. For example, a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the impact of self-monitoring of blood glucose levels on glycaemic control and psychological scores in patients with recently diagnosed type 2 diabetes mellitus, found that self-monitoring was correlated with higher scores on a depression subscale. The more patients learned that their blood glucose levels were high, the more depressed they became.
Mobile technologies in healthcare are empowering patients with ownership and accessibility of their health metrics. These technologies place patients at the center of the healthcare ecosystem. Beyond mere convenience, mobile technologies in healthcare will define the new normal in the healthcare industry.