Here's a big number: $26 billion. That's the estimated size of the mHealth market in 2017, according to a recent report by the research and consulting firm research2guidance. The report, "Global Mobile Health Market Report 2013-2017," says that there are currently 97,000 mHealth applications in major app stores, "42 percent of them adhering to the paid business model. With more and more traditional health care providers joining the mobile applications market, the business models will broaden to include health care services, sensor and advertising and drug sales revenues."
If you were at HIMSS' annual conference earlier this month, you know that conversations of mHealth dominated not just the education sessions — 35 were focused exclusively on the topic — but also the exhibit hall. And yesterday, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, kicked off three days of hearings on mHealth. Day one reportedly focused on the potential for the FDA and other parts of the federal government to regulate mHealth and how that would impact innovation.
What seems to get lost in all of the hype and hoopla over mHealth, though, is the question of how effective the apps are/can be in actually improving health outcomes. At HIMSS — and at CHIME last fall — Eric Topol, M.D., discussed the metaphorical death of the stethoscope. At both meetings, Topol, director of Scripps Health's Translational Science Institute, wowed audiences with apps and attachments that turned his iPhone into an ultrasound device, vital sign monitor, ECG machine and more.
Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy s4, released earlier this month, comes preloaded with a series of mHealth apps — not just to monitor and record your workout, but to track your weight, blood glucose, blood pressure and sleep patterns.
It's all pretty cool stuff. But what if it is just that, cool stuff?
Pulitzer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg, in an online New York Times column last week, explored the worldwide challenge of using mHealth to achieve gains in health outcomes. There's a great quote midway through the column from Gustav Praekelt, a South African software developer. "We had this techno-utopian optimism. The moment someone's got a mobile phone we can make all this information available and we will just magically see all the behavior change we want to see."
As we've tried to illustrate in our Connecting the Continuum series, a key to achieving higher quality of care is using technology to make meaningful connections from provider to provider and from patient to provider (which is really the point for mHealth).
So while much of mHealth is targeted directly at the consumer; what still seems to be missing, or at least in the very formative stages, is the link back to providers. Once that connection occurs, care teams can direct targeted messages at patients, aiding them in their treatment protocols. Those connections will also allow for better data collection, which ultimately could lead to better population health.
As Rosenberg concludes in her column: "The technology is the easy part. An mHealth project is just as complicated as any other health project, just with a phone attached."