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MHealth and texting takes health care to new dimensions -- with risks

Mobile health, or mHealth, is becoming an important way for providers to reach their patients, and vice versa.

Here at the mHealth Summit 2010 in Washington, D.C., several discussions, sessions, posters and products are focused on using SMS, aka text messaging, as a way to disseminate health care information to patients, as well as to conduct research about the ways patients are using health care.

The National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition’s Text4baby program, which already has more than 100,000 participants, will announce a major initiative to boost enrollment at an event here today.

The Center for Connected Health, part of the Partners HealthCare System in Boston, just completed a trial with the Lynn Community Health Center in Massachusetts for pregnant women and substance abuse patients, in which participants signed up to receive text messages reminding them about appointments, care practices and other news.

A summit panel session titled Adolescence, Mobile Technology & Culture described several research trials that used mobile phones to conduct research. In a few cases, participants were given free SMS-capable phones or smartphones that they used to answer questions or enable doctors to deliver follow-up care and send medication reminders.

This is all cutting-edge and obviously has taken patient care into a new dimension. Privacy, on the other hand, was not mentioned once in any of the conversations I took part in. Part of the reason is that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act specifically exempts research projects from the prohibition on disseminating personal health information (PHI). Also, parents of underage patients and the patients themselves can sign waivers so their PHI can be transmitted.

Like life, however, information tends to find a way. For instance, researchers have only their faith to rely on that the recipient of a text message containing PHI actually is read by the subject. In some cases, parents, friends or complete strangers who found a lost phone were able to access the information, researchers said.

Mobile technology is — and will be — transformative for health care, but protections still need to be put in place that ensure that mobile health is not a passing fad that could not sustain itself due to the risk of privacy invasions.

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RT @SearchHealthIT: #mhealth, texting take #healthcare to new dimensions, but with risks https://bit.ly/dqh18C #healthIT
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