mHealth Summit Day One: HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and West Wireless Institute's Eric Topol

Dec 5, 2011, 5:30 PM, Posted by


Not surprisingly, there were some striking numbers tossed around on morning one of the third annual mHealth Summit today, including the number of worldwide Facebook users—800 million—and the percentage of U.S. households with cell phones—about 90 percent.

That Facebook number has great mHealth applicability. Keynote speaker Eric Topol, MD, vice chair of West Wireless Health Institute, a conference sponsor, told the story of a little boy whose doctors couldn’t diagnose his illness, until his mother put a photo of him—and his skin swelling—on Facebook and got back the accurate diagnosis of Kawasaki’s Disease, an autoimmune disease that can be fatal. That example is an important one because Facebook is relatively inexpensive to access. Other technologies discussed at the opening keynote today—including a smartphone heart imaging app that Dr. Topol says he has used for two years instead of a stethoscope, might take longer to adopt as physicians learn to use, store and charge patients and providers for the images.

Numbers do speak to the growth of the industry. Attendees at this year’s meeting grew from 2,400 last year to 3,600 in 2011, according to Scott Campbell, PhD, Executive Director and CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, another conference sponsor.

The wow factor was certainly on the screen this morning—Smartphone microscope apps, and chip-loaded contact lenses to monitor glaucoma, for example. But speakers acknowledged that adoption is still in its early phases, even as the usefulness is quantifiable. Robert Kaplan, PhD, Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health, noted, for example that 63 percent of deaths worldwide are now the result of non-communicable diseases. "In order to combat these trends we need new tools and strategies and new innovations," says Kaplan, who added that "we believe that mHealth and wireless technologies are an essential part of our future. For example, research centers are looking at sensors and wireless phones to help monitor health in rural locations."

Kaplan made a strong case for scrutiny: "physicians are stubborn and they want evidence—we need evidence to document the benefits of health and I look forward to what lies ahead."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged the relative slow growth of technology in medicine, "healthcare has stubbornly hung onto its cabinets and hanging files." But, Sebelius pointed out, "when innovation is slow, so is improvement. Americans still live sicker and die sooner than many people in nations around the world."

Sebelius focused on electronic health records and pointed out that part out that part of the healthcare problem is a lack of access to information about their own health, health information and how to find help. HHS says adoption has moved from 17 percent in 2009 to 34 percent and is on pace to triple shortly. "mHealth," says Sebelius, "is the natural extension of this trend."

Where government can play a critical role, says Sebelius, is in providing and driving research and as a catalyst. Benefits extend beyond health of individuals—Sebelius says 50,000 new jobs have been created by the growth of electronic health records.

Sebelius told the attendees that they can help move these technologies and their benefits forward, by being supportive of all innovations, not just those that involve health tools, such as "helping move toward patient-centered health systems." And, she added, the technologies will only be embraced if individuals know they’re safe and private.

>>Follow our continued coverage of the mHealth Summit.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.