mHealth: Updates from the Exhibit Floor

Dec 7, 2011, 6:46 PM, Posted by

The one sure thing about the mHealth summit is that this is a field still in its early days. But attendance of first-time exhibitors Verizon, Qualcomm and AT&T, who each showed some new health monitoring apps and connectivity systems, was good news for the industry and the conference. More important, says Tom Brewer, project manager at the Northwest Regional Telehealth Resource Center, is the opportunity these big companies bring in helping smaller telecommunications systems fit into their larger networks. Brewer says that expanding telehealth and mHealth opportunities could improve connectivity and access for consumers in areas where broadband is limited.

Numbers underscore the nascent phase of the mHealth field. At a session yesterday on the value of mHealth, attendees were reminded that a month after download, only 6 percent of public health apps are still in use. From a business model, the purchase is completed. But from a public health standpoint, the promise of the app for diabetes or glucose monitoring, or calorie counts or smoking cessation, for example, has largely been lost, says Brewer. At least one app firm on the exhibit floor confirmed those numbers. A million of their apps have been downloaded in the last four years, but only 7 percent are still in use.

Yvonne Hunt, PhD, MPH, of the National Cancer Institute says that simply underscores the need for testing and evidence so that apps are designed with best practices and remain in use. (Read our Q&A with Dr. Hunt.) One way to increase use might be with automatic updates to downloaded apps, an option from several firms and a good question for providers to research before recommending an app.

Technology to watch:

  • Cffone—mobile website for kids with cystic fibrosis that helps connect patients with each other and encourages adherence to treatment regimens.
  • NIH alcohol consumption app that will be launched in early 2012—lets users key in the alcohol type and portion size in their drinks so they can see if they’re exceeding recommended daily limits and track their intake over time. Drinkers are often unaware of how much alcohol they’re consuming in a day or month, of the risks it can pose, such as impaired driving, exacerbated health concerns and drug interactions.

Dave Vockell of LyfeChannel (a mobile program aimed at improving prescription drug adherence), who was formerly with Yahoo and has also worked on improving the social capabilities of Nokia devices, says the limited evidence base for mHealth is impacted by funding. An NIH grant can take a year to come through and the field is dominated by researchers who know how to write the grants for success, says Vockell. Venture capital funding, on the other hand, can come through in six months to a year and also often also includes development and marketing expertise.

>>Bonus recommended reading: The blog reports on the mHealth Summit, with a focus on what you can do now to think about mobile health—such as looking at existing web content to see what can be shortened and made accessible by mobile phone.

Weigh In: How do you combine rigorous evidence with strategic business help to get proven apps that can change behaviors into the hands of consumers?


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