mHealth (mobile health) is a general term for the use of mobile phones and other wireless technology in medical care. The most common application of mHealth is the use of mobile devices to educate consumers about preventive healthcare services. However, mHealth is also used for disease surveillance, treatment support, epidemic outbreak tracking and chronic disease management.
mHealth is becoming a popular option in underserved areas where there is a large population and widespread mobile phone use. Nonprofit organizations like mHealth Alliance are advocating for increased use of mHealth in the developing world.
Benefits of mHealth
For consumers, a major benefit of mHealth is its convenience. Wearable devices and other mobile technology allow users to continuously track and manage certain health data without having to see their healthcare provider. There are also a plethora of apps to choose from: As of 2017, there were 325,000 mHealth apps available for download from app stores, according to digital health consulting firm research2guidance.
mHealth can also help bridge gaps in care by allowing patients to communicate with their physician or care team and vice versa without meeting face to face. Secure messaging, for example, allows physicians to alert parents when their child is out of surgery. It also allows healthcare providers to communicate with each other about patients -- for example, letting a nurse know when a patient has arrived for an appointment.
Some mobile health apps, such as the Apple Health App, can integrate with a patient's electronic health record, allowing users to access their health data on their iPhone or iPad.
One disadvantage of mHealth apps is that their privacy policies may lag behind those of other apps. Even when privacy policies are present, users may not always read them, which can lead to a lack of understanding about how vendors or other parties use their health data. Additionally, not all mHealth apps are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), meaning there is no guarantee that a user's health information will be protected or that users will be notified if there is a data breach.
Another potential drawback of mHealth apps is that their information may not be accurate. Some apps claim to be able to measure blood pressure by having the user press their finger on a screen or camera, but there is little research to support this claim. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine tested one such app -- Instant Blood Pressure -- and found that the measurements "were highly inaccurate." It behooves users to read the descriptions for these apps carefully for explanations of how measurements are ascertained. This dilemma may cause frustration for providers as patients may think they are accurately managing and measuring their blood pressure and may not seek actual medical care. Users should also be aware that some apps may include a warning that the app is intended for entertainment or recreational use only.
mHealth vs. telehealth
While there can be overlap between telehealth and mHealth, the two are not interchangeable. The main difference is that mHealth is delivered exclusively via mobile devices. While telehealth can be delivered on mobile platforms, it refers to the delivery of remote care via electronic information and telecommunications technologies.
Telehealth visits typically take place via videoconferencing between a physician or nurse and the patient; although, the term also includes remote patient monitoring through wireless medical devices.
A 2018 consumer survey from health insurer United HealthCare Services Inc. found that 36% of Americans used the internet or a mobile app to compare healthcare services during the last year, with millennials being the most likely to do so at 51%.
Meanwhile, a Deloitte study of 4,530 healthcare consumers and 624 physicians found that half of all respondents used wearables and other technologies to track their health information, and 53% said they shared that information with their physician.
Additionally, a consumer survey from Accenture found that 46% of respondents used their mobile phone or tablet to manage their health, compared to 36% in 2016. Further, 36% said technology was very important for managing health, up from 30% in 2016. The majority of respondents, 90%, were willing to share information from their wearable devices with their physician.