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NIH spotlights mobile research at mHealth Summit

Don Fluckinger, News Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mobile health, or mHealth technology isn't just commercial technology growing organically out in the free market, As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed here at the mHealth Summit, it's getting

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a solid push from public funding too.

Monday's keynote speakers not only detailed the technology projects under development to the summit's 2,300 attendees, but also -- often emphatically -- underscored the need for mHealth program implementations, and backed their assertions with statistics underscoring their urgency.

"Almost 90% of the world's population is covered by a wireless signal," said show co-presenter David Aylward, executive director of the mHealth Alliance. "Our challenge is to match that with improved health outcomes. … Our business here is deadly serious; there are 360,000 women who are dying in childbirth every year, and almost 4 million babies who die before they are 30 days old. That has got to stop. Many and most are dying out of ignorance, and many more [deaths] could be prevented by one or two simple interventions, such as a single pill."

NIH showcases mHealth tech in development

The NIH's centers and institutes provide $36 million in funding for next-generation mHealth and telehealth technology research, as well as millions for related technology initiatives, said Dr. Francis Collins, the institutes' director. He outlined several mHealth projects being funded that could directly affect health IT in the future. Some promote patient-doctor interaction; others are more likely to result in the development of consumer devices:

•   The Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array Platform Based on Shadow Imaging (LUCAS for short), a cellphone-attached microscope that can get infectious disease diagnostics and surveillance out of the lab and into the field.

•   A smart pill container that monitors and records when it's been opened and closed, and thus can track adherence to a medication schedule. The container is being used in Uganda to monitor patients' use of their antiretroviral medication against the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. A few days' missed doses can be made up, but patients risk health repercussions if they go longer than that, Collins said.

•   An infrared sensor that measures air pollution could be especially useful in urban areas where readings are averaged out for the whole region and don't indicate localized pockets of unhealthy levels of pollution.

•   Wearable personal infrared sensors that will assess diet, exercise and overall physical activity come with a camera outfitted with software that obscures the faces of the people whose images it captures, thus avoiding violating their privacy.

Moreover, the NIH has ported a lot of its popular Medline database's Web content into MedlinePlus, a mobile format compatible with the iPhone, Android phones and many other Web-enabled cell phones. The content is geared toward consumers as well, Collins said.

HHS's mHealth texting service for new moms hits milestone

Todd Park, chief technology officer for the Department of Health & Human Services, announced that HHS's groundbreaking Text4baby mHealth information service reached 100,000 enrolled users on the eve of the mHealth Summit. That figure includes registrants to the service's Text4bebe Spanish-language counterpart.

There are 360,000 women who are dying in childbirth every year, and almost 4 million babies who die before they are 30 days old. That has got to stop.

David Aylward, executive director, mHealth Alliance

Text4baby automatically texts new and expectant mothers health information as reminders (for example, about when during the first year their child should get immunizations) -- all keyed to due dates or birthdays. Launched earlier this year, Text4baby has become the largest free mHealth program in the United States, Park said. He announced several initiatives, including a Text4health task force investigating how the Text4baby model can be applied to other health initiatives, such as smoking cessation, obesity and childhood health. He also said that open government health data -- content published by HHS and affiliated agencies -- eventually will be published in a phone-friendly format at a website named Healthdata.gov.

MHealth technologies figure to be a driver in executing the U.S. health care reform law's goal of cutting the cost of care, and will raise health care quality at the same time, Park said. They will enable better care coordination, health tracking and monitoring, and will make possible e-care via mobile phones, in which many procedures will be ported to handheld devices that today precipitate face-to-face doctor visits.

"So, what does all this mean for mHealth?" Park asked the assembled crowd of researchers, software developers and mHealth stakeholders. "It means a tremendous, new opportunity for mHealth to make a difference. It means new incentives for the health care system to utilize mHealth to improve health. It means an expanding sea of new data that mHealth applications can tap to be of benefit for consumers, patients, providers and communities -- and a continually improving health system."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer.


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