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Mobile health market on verge of 'explosive' growth, report says

New research points to the mobile health market expanding by a factor of 17 in the next three years, as doctors and nurses exploit new mobile health apps in their daily work.

In today's mobile health market, the projected annual revenue for software and services combined is less than $100 million. In a new report, however, health IT analysts at Chilmark Research predict the market's "explosive" expansion to $1.7 billion by the end of 2014. Physician demand for smartphones and tablet software and services will drive the growth, coupled with health care providers' mandates for improving quality of care and cutting costs at the same time.

The hooks are set for mobile health's rapid growth, because 63% of physicians already use mobile health apps on touch-screen tablets or phones. So far, however, those apps are mostly for reference. One, for example, is Epocrates, a popular drug-interaction database that began as a Palm app and migrated to the iPhone a few years ago as Palm devices became obsolete.

Cora Sharma, lead author of the Chilmark report, and her analyst co-authors see future mobile health apps performing much more sophisticated functions: They will enable processes ranging from meaningful use objectives to such back-office chores as electronic health record (EHR) data entry, charge capture, clinical decision support and computerized physician order entry, or CPOE.

In addition, smartphones and tablet PCs like the iPad will be used for telemedicine and remote monitoring applications. Finally, these devices with applications for showing images and videos to patients will become much more widespread than they are now, the report said.

The iPad: A new class of mobile health care device

In the course of her interviews with health care providers, Sharma was surprised to learn, not only how many physicians were early adopters of iPads, but also why, she said: "The iPad is really close to their ideal form factor -- it's not perfect, but it's quite close."

As health care leaders scramble to comply with federal mandates to qualify for health IT incentives, function should follow the iPad's near-ideal form as they get loaded with EHR systems and related apps.

Will the iPad and touch-screen tablets like it remain a companion device to laptops and smartphones, or will tablets eventually replace one or the other? Sharma's opinion is that they will remain in-between, replacing neither but becoming an important device in the physician's workflow. Physicians will end up using their phones off-site, their laptop and desktop PCs at their desks, and their tablets on the go inside the office and while seeing patients, she says.

"Talking to doctors, every one that has an iPad right now has a smartphone -- and they use both," said Sharma, who interviewed hospital IT leaders, as well as physicians and vendors, in compiling the report.

Because data entry and copy-and-paste operations are much more efficient on a laptop or desktop PC, those probably won't be supplanted by such tablets as the iPad anytime soon, either. "[Users] don't feel like they can depend on the tablet for everything right now," Sharma said.

Whither Android in the mobile health market?

Sharma further believes that Google Inc.'s Android operating system -- which runs on phones and tablets like the Cisco Systems Inc. Cisco Cius and the Galaxy Tab from Samsung Electronics Co. -- will establish a beachhead in health care. She's not quite as sanguine about Android as Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak, who recently called the bout for Google, saying Android eventually could surpass the Apple iOS, which runs on both the iPhone and iPad. (He later backed off those comments -- a little.)

I think the iPad is still going to remain the market leader, but it will lose market share.

Cora Sharma, analyst, Chilmark Research

The Windows OS, too, will have its users, thanks to such devices as the Slate from Hewlett-Packard Co.

"If I [have] to make a prediction, it would be that the iPad and iOS are not necessarily going to dominate like they have been," Sharma said. "There is going to be competition. It's a question of how much market share [the competitors] can take. At this point, I think the iPad is still going to remain the market leader, but it will lose market share."

While Android and iOS devices don't have the computing power or data storage capacity of their laptop and desktop PC brethren, cloud computing and desktop virtualization will be two ways that health care providers will port medical-grade applications to tablets, at least, Sharma predicts. Virtualization and the cloud help satisfy compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), because no patient data is stored on the devices themselves.

Some physicians remain more comfortable with the traditional model of carrying applications and data on a device without having to worry about persistent Web connectivity.

"All these approaches have their tradeoffs," Sharma said. "A lot of the tradeoffs are around privacy and security versus usability."

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

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