Open mHealth: Making Sense of Mobile Health Data

Nov 28, 2012, 10:10 AM, Posted by

By David Haddad, program manager of Open mHealth

Next week, Pioneer grantee Open mHealth will showcase its work during the 2012 mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. at a panel with co-founder Deborah Estrin on Monday and an “Open mHealth” special session on Tuesday.

What Is an Open Architecture?

Open architecture is software with source code that is freely available to developers to promote cooperation and interoperability (as opposed to proprietary and copyrighted software). This means developers can more quickly and effectively work together to create optimized mHealth applications.

What Is Open mHealth, and Why Is It Important?

Nine out of 10 people on the planet own a cell phone—making it more common than owning a car, radio, or television. Mobile health (mHealth) apps are increasingly popular—with one in five smartphone users having a health app. We can use apps on our phones to help us stay healthy. Apps like epocrates allow us to find health information and learn about medicine; other apps can help us collect and share data about our health with our health care providers.

However, many of today’s mHealth apps are not built to process the data collected into useful guides for action, such as offering data to help doctors identify a patient whose blood sugar is too high or if certain medications might be having adverse effects on a person’s mental health. This problem is only going to worsen if new apps are not developed in an open source way that promotes easier data sharing across platforms.

In the recently published article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Open mHealth researchers explain that open source software is needed for mobile data analysis, chronic disease prevention and management, and interoperability among applications. By fostering this open architecture and encouraging developers and health innovators to collaborate in creating apps, Open mHealth is pushing for mHealth apps to be more efficient and effective for patients and providers. This environment promotes industry-wide cooperation and growth, rather than siloed technologies and competition.

As Open mHealth is an open source community, collaboration and sharing leads to rapid development of more effective apps and accelerated learning from the data collected.  

How Does Open mHealth’s Work Apply to Patients?

It’s easy to talk about an open architecture, but it’s another thing to bring this architecture to life in real-world applications in ways that can improve health and clinical care.  The Open mHealth project had the opportunity to do just that when we partnered with Dr. Julia Hoffman and her team at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to take their app, PTSD Coach, to the next level by making the most of the valuable data being collected.

PTSD Coach is a personal self-reporting tool that helps users with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) manage their symptoms. The benefits are profound in terms of helping patients overcome the challenges of seeking help. The app gives users a full week to self-manage between visits.

However, while patients have found the app to be useful, it was becoming difficult for Dr. Hoffman and her colleagues at the VA to interpret patients' weekly data to make insightful decisions on how to improve their patients’ symptoms.

Enter Open mHealth.

Together, we plumbed the PTSD Coach app through the Open mHealth architecture and built open-sourced, bit-size modules for analysis and visualization that turned real-time data entered from the patient’s phone into a processed, trended, and correlated Web view. Now, Dr. Hoffman and her patients have meaningful conversations about their symptoms using the data.

While the conversations prompted by the app’s data are incredibly important to patients and clinicians, the app is also improving the mHealth field through its partnership with Open mHealth. The data-sharing modules and code behind PTSD Coach are available to any developer to use or modify within our online community, so that any (or ALL) health-related mobile apps can effectively share data in the same way.

Right now, developers and health innovators are contributing ideas, building modules, and sharing code for future apps that can track and improve health, similar to PTSD Coach. We’re also guiding our working groups through discussions about ways to address key obstacles that developers, patients, and clinicians face when building and using mHealth apps. By sharing expertise and unique perspectives, participants in these groups are identifying and helping to improve mHealth apps of the future.

What’s Next?

If you are an app developer or a health care professional interested in creating mHealth apps, we want your input. Find out more about our work and sign up for a working group on We invite you to join the conversation there, or you can always share your comments with us through @OpenmHealth or @pioneerrwjf on Twitter.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.