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Health IT Pulse

Dec 12 2011   12:49PM GMT

Selling mobile health technology to the masses

Posted by: Beastwood
mHealth Summit, mobile health technologies, patient engagement

Whenever I am introduced to new technology, I place it in the context of my parents, who didn’t own a cell phone until I bought them one in 2007 and still use dial-up Internet even though broadband has been available in their Massachusetts town for more than a decade.

That’s why my enthusiasm for the mobile health technology discussed at last week’s mHealth Summit outside Washington seemed a bit more tepid than that of other attendees.

I don’t doubt mobile health technology’s potential to dramatically improve chronic disease management and wellness monitoring, nor do I doubt its potential to effectively leverage the cloud to store, share and manipulate date. I do doubt whether the technology will have an impact beyond its early adopters.

My parents, for example, could certainly benefit from mobile health technology. My mother could monitor her blood pressure and food intake, while my father could make sure he’s getting enough exercise. Even my brother, who refuses to digitize the thousands of CDs he owns or invest in a flat-screen TV, could use mHealth to monitor his daughter’s diabetes.

Unfortunately, none of them will. They don’t trust technology — and they’re not alone. The Washington Post refers to the enthusiasm gap between physicians and mobile health technology startups, many of whom exhibited at the mHealth Summit and many of whom, after a few passes of the exhibit hall, were difficult to tell apart. The Psilos Group, a health care venture capital firm, wonders if mHealth firms can make a steady profit.

To be fair, the industry has tackled this issue, albeit outside the United States. Such demonstrations ranked among the most powerful at the mHealth Summit for me — researchers and health care professionals teaming with technology vendors and, often, local government officials to successfully convince a population to embrace mobile health technology in order to provide care that did not previously exist.

For the developing world, mHealth’s value proposition is a fairly easy sell. Even something as simple as a weekly text message from the local health clinic will keep a rural mother in touch with her physician and improve her (and her children’s) overall health.

In the United States, on the other hand, it’s a lot more difficult. For the most part, the health care infrastructure is there. It’s just not used as well as it could be. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) is going great lengths to educate Americans about the value of health IT, including mobile health technology, as a means of empowering patients to improve their health care and, by extension, their lives.

It’s a noble goal, and one I and many others endorse. Without doing an extensive demographic study, though, I suspect that the majority of the patients who would benefit from the ONC’s education efforts — like my mother, father and brother — wouldn’t know how to find them on the Internet and probably wouldn’t look at them if I emailed them.

Mobile health technology suffers the same problem. The industry doesn’t need to convince me — a 31-year-old who’s run seven marathons and feels guilty every time he misses a workout — about the benefits of an exercise tracking application for his smartphone. (Full disclosure: I do have one, I used it last night and it was pretty cool.) It needs to convince my parents, who still haven’t read the text message I sent them when they were out of town and the Boston Red Sox clinched the 2007 American League East division title. If they won’t read a text from their own son, will they read one from their doctors?

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