Dec 5 2011
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mHealth Summit: An Interview with Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet & American Life Project

Susannah Fox, Pew Internet & American Life Project

The third annual mHealth Summit starts today. The summit brings together more than 3,600 leaders in government, the private sector, academia, health care providers and not-for-profit organizations to advance collaboration in the use of wireless technology to improve health outcomes in the U.S. and abroad. In advance of the meeting, NewPublicHealth spoke with Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and contributor to the health blog, e-patients.net, about advances in mobile health and what’s yet to come.

>>NewPublicHealth will be covering the conference, talking with attendees and reporting from the ground of the mHealth Summit. Follow our coverage here.

NewPublicHealth: Where on its trajectory is mHealth?

Susannah Fox: About 85 percent of American adults have a cell phone. While many are still used only for phone calls, a third of the cell phone population has a Smartphone. It’s significant that that the audience is growing and what we thought last year about mHealth already has to be updated.

Last year only 17 percent of cell phone users used their devices to look up health information, so that’s a place where there is room for growth. By comparison, about 70 percent send and/or receive text messages and about 40 percent access the internet.

NPH: What will spur greater growth?

Susannah Fox: We’ll see some demographic changes. As people currently in their 20s, who are significant users of mobile devices, move ahead into different stages of their life, that can change how many people are doing mHealth searches.

The other thing that could change is that on the supply side, more organizations are making sure their websites and other content is mobile ready, making sure it’s possible to read something or forward something or share it on a social network site. And, add in mobile users to internet use and the differences between white adults and African American adults, for example, disappears. Mobile use could have an effect on other digital divides in the future, but for now, our research shows that its greatest effect is among minorities. For example, use of cell phones or mobile digital devices to find health information is 21 percent for Latino adults, but only 13 percent for White adults.

NPH: What else from a health perspective would someone use their mobile device for?

Susannah Fox: Going beyond search, there is text messaging and the opportunity for creating public health messages that are interesting and engaging and funny and that people want to forward to their friends.

In the health app market, up to date data shows us it’s pretty stable. Eleven percent of all adult cell phone users have downloaded an app that helps them manage their health, a statistically insignificant difference from the 9 percent of adult cell users who reported having used a mobile health app in September 2010.

And a new report shows that mobile enables people to be location-aware and let them find information that relates to exactly where you are at any time of the day or night. This could have an impact on health searches such as looking for clinics and providers.

We’re still really at the early adopter stage for online health though—social media, engagement in e-patient networks, health apps. It’s still a small group that really is engaged to share with others, or is tracking some aspect of their health on their mobile device. We’re watching to see when it will engage a wider population—will it be a monitor that reports to you? Or perhaps when clinicians engage and encourage patients to go online.

Tags: Health disparities, Mobile health/mhealth, Technology