We are currently in the early stages of a potentially disruptive era in health care. Technological change is driven by the growth in smartphones and connected devices worldwide, and more and more, apps are assuming a larger role in the health care system. Currently, there are over 6,000 health- and medicine-related apps in the App Store alone, and mobile health (mHealth) is creating new possibilities for clinicians and patients to both manage their care and track important health information while also contributing to clinical research.
One of the more interesting facets of the so-called “mhealth revolution” is that a great deal of innovation is coming from Africa and other developing areas of the world, where the need for low-cost solutions for pressing health issues has generated a much experimentation and research that is likely to play a role in more advanced economies in the coming years.
The recent release of the iPad is also beginning to make waves in the medical arena as the high-resolution screen enables medical imaging applications. Stanford University School of Medicine, for instance, is now using the iPad for instruction with first-year medical students.
On the consumer side, smartphones enable health plans and the wellness industry to push the right information to the right people at the right time. This improves the odds of impacting behavioral change in consumers, a difficult task in a world where chronic diseases and aging are becoming the central forces driving up medical costs. In the wellness arena we’re finding a growing number of apps for tracking nutritional and fitness levels, along with the ability to link such data to other affected individuals in social networks. With research on the role of social networks in health outcomes growing by the day, the next generation of mhealth apps promises to bring interesting insights into the effects of social mobiles on health outcomes. Combine the power of social networks with data visualization tools and augmented reality apps that can shed light on environmental health data in place and a new world of mhealth begins to emerge. Mobile gaming, social networks and ubiquitous data could come together on the mobile platform and profoundly impact the way in which we think about health and disease or even the meanings of “healthy places.” Moreover, the mobile phone can work in conjunction with Bluetooth devices, microscopes and diagnostics to create an entire ecosystem of mobile devices that work together to create better health care.
Some of the key challenges going forward will be to create the evidence base to inform policy-making and drive reimbursement reform such that health care app developers can sustain viable business models. With the FDA now considering regulating medical app devices, there are questions about the future of low-cost health care applications, given the expensive burden of clinical trials. Nevertheless, there will be growing opportunities to develop new innovation architecture in the mHealth space through public-private partnerships and networks of employers, retailers and technology developers to create the right mix of social innovation and incentives with appropriate technology solutions in the health care arena.