Heritage Open mHealth Challenge: Searching for a Sum Greater Than Its Parts

Mar 4, 2013, 3:14 PM, Posted by Christine Nieves

Christine Nieves

“Smart” phones are rapidly becoming ubiquitous; almost half of all American adults own one. Every one of those phones has the potential to be a health companion for its owner, providing reminders about pills to take or tips about healthier foods to eat. Phones can also collect valuable health data—such as the quality of the air we breathe or the number of steps we walk. For people with a chronic disease such as diabetes, a smart phone can track the kinds of meals that spike their blood sugar or the side effects of their medications; it can even relay that information back to a doctor, who can then help patients better manage their health.

To date, the major tool for harnessing the power of mobile technology has been the app. Just like there are apps for weather, news, or restaurant reviews, there are apps for health. They can do amazing things, from measuring and monitoring, to imaging and predicting. But, there aren’t just a handful of them—there are thousands! And, that’s where the Heritage Open mHealth Challenge comes in.

This isn’t a challenge to encourage the creation of even more mobile health apps; it’s a challenge to find a way for the thousands of existing apps to coordinate and communicate. If you’re not sure why that’s necessary, think about a car.

There are many parts in any car and many kinds of each part, but every part communicates in a common way with a car’s dashboard. No matter who’s driving or how much the driver knows about that particular car, they can take a quick look at the dashboard and immediately know a handful of crucial things about it.

Whether a car runs on diesel, gasoline, or electricity, a flashing light in the shape of a gas pump means the same thing to every driver of every car: This car is in desperate need of whatever it runs on! Similarly, the odometer, speedometer, and warning lights on that dashboard each signal something else universal about how the car is—or isn’t—working for the driver.

A similar kind of dashboard for apps is exactly what the mobile health world needs right now. Without that, providers and their patients will continue to miss out on the full potential of health apps. They’ll remain unable to aggregate the data from each individual app—unable to get a simple, central picture of a patient’s health. If every app’s inputs and outputs could be integrated and communicated in a seamless way, then their power as a whole would be far greater than the sum of their individual parts.

That’s why Pioneer grantee Open mHealth, as well as the Heritage Provider Network and University of California, Los Angeles, have partnered to create the Heritage Open mHealth Challenge. A $100,000 prize will go to the team that can find the most graceful, accessible way to integrate the thousands of health apps out there—and those yet to come. The winning solution must:

  • Use common, open-source architecture;
  • Result in better health outcomes for the patient; and
  • Create a simple and powerful clinical tool for providers.

Smart phones have already changed so many aspects of how we live. By harnessing the power of real-time health data, smart phones may ultimately play a key role in how long we live.

Are you up for the challenge? Find out more! The project registration deadline is March 31, and the final submission deadline is May 1. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.