In a recent post, mHealth Insight explained that we’re more likely as consumers to drop the “health” in mHealth rather than the “mobile,” because mobile cannibalizes all things pocket-sized and digital. Anything plus mobile eventually just equals mobile. For example, camera phones and music phones are both now just phones. So, mHealth will soon just be mobile, too. Folks won’t look up from their giant touchscreen phones and say they’re “engaging with the Healthcare system;” they’ll instead say “oh, I’m just using my phone.”

But when will mHealth be that intrinsically mobile? Let’s look at the healthcare side first. According to Mobile Business Briefing, Vodafone, “one of the strongest operator proponents of mobile healthcare technology,” says that first healthcare must be accessible on a global scale. They’ve identified five key areas driving the digital health sector:

  1. Remote monitoring
  2. Mobile flexible working
  3. Access to medicine
  4. Clinical research
  5. Marketing and engagement

Currently, these five areas are experiencing varied growth among different local, regional, and national sectors in the various healthcare fields, meaning there’s no across-the-board trends. Essentially, it’s super segmented. When cameras became an intrinsic aspect of mobile, it happened among all major cell phone providers with overall steady adoption trends. This needs to happen for digital health, too. “‘We should look at best practice values. Learn from role models…To drive the mHealth market to scale, we need to ask for support from NGOs to provide initial funding in emerging markets…and let’s keep mHealth solutions as simple as possible. If we do all these things well we can…become mainstream,’” says  Axel Nemetz, Head of mHealth Solutions at Vodafone.

Drilling down within the healthcare sector to doctors specifically, we find—like Vodafone said—that adoption is very segmented, indeed. Here in the US, 20% of physicians have downloaded and used at least one mHealth app. However, according to an article on JdSupra that cites a recent study conducted for PwC by the Economist Intelligence Unit on the global mHealth market, “only 27% of physicians encourage patients to use mobile health applications while another 13% percent of physicians actively discourage patients from their use.” Why the discouragement? Medical professionals are “rightly cautious about changing protocols where human health is involved,” and they’re extremely conservative regarding patient privacy on mobile technology.

But the same study found that “about half of patients [surveyed] believe mobile health technologies (or mHealth) will improve and help them manage their healthcare,” and “59% [of doctors surveyed] believe it is inevitable that mobile health products will play a role in healthcare delivery.” Consumers want the technology, and doctors know it’s inevitable. Seems to me the healthcare field needs to take a page from #solvePT and learn to educate on new technologies rather than fear or discourage them, especially when their patients are curious and eager. Besides, according to JdSupra, “mobile health technologies can reduce costs and increase access when it comes to many routine healthcare issues that conventionally required a visit to the doctor, particularly monitoring chronic conditions.”

Besides the medical fields’ apprehension to adopt, Gigaom reports that—even though investment in the mHealth sector is expected to increase by 25 percent over the next five years and could exceed $1.1 billion by 2017—the “majority of mobile apps fail to engage consumers, and the category as a whole has yet to win over doctors.” Supporting this notion is the fact that only “10% of adult cell phone users in the US have downloaded a health app with some never using it or only using it once.”

Gigaom cites the same PwC study I mentioned above, agreeing that consumers definitely want the apps. It’s just that very few developers are producing noteworthy ones, which some attribute to cost. However, Chris Wasden, Global Healthcare Innovation Leader for PwC explains that “insurance companies are more willing to pay for mobile healthcare services than doctors are willing to provide them.” And it’s back on doctors once again.

Wasden says there are six principles of successful mHealth app development (interoperability, integration, intelligence, outcomes, socialization, and engagement). But if doctors aren’t on board, then no matter how great an app is, these principles cannot occur. And if current mHealth apps are struggling to gain support, what’s influencing other developers to further innovate and improve? Vicious cycle. Fortunately, says JdSupra, “consumers are pushing for greater access to mobile tools to manage their health, so providers and payers have a strong incentive to evolve and adapt.”

Ultimately, mainstream digital health adoption cannot occur unless technology, doctors, and patients are truly on board. Clearly, patients are, and the technology is primed to thrive. Now, if only doctors could be like our trailblazing, tech-savvy rehab therapists! Give the rest of the medical realm your thoughts:

  • Do you know of any therapy-focused studies on mHealth?
  • What do you believe are the benefits of mHealth?
  • How are you embracing mHealth or talking with patients about it in your clinic?
  • What mHealth apps do you feel demonstrate the six key principles (interoperability, integration, intelligence, outcomes, socialization, and engagement)?

Share your responses in the comments section.