Yesterday's common-sense medical advice--"take two aspirin and call me in the morning"--is long gone. But in its place, how about "take these two apps and we'll video chat later"? We may not be far away from this, as mobile medical technologies, applications, and devices have delivered new, ingenious possibilities to doctors and patients alike.
Over the course of just a few short years, innovation has exploded to the point where mobile technologies and healthcare have joined. These exciting developments create the potential to increase access to quality, cost-efficient healthcare and improved health outcomes for patients. But before that can happen, we have challenges to address.
A recent Brookings Institution event, titled "The Modernization of Health Care Through Mobile Technology and Medical Monitoring Devices" identified many of these challenges and focused on the possible benefits of medical apps and devices. The panel discussion also focused on concerns such as how to encourage and incentivize patients, doctors, and other health care professionals to recognize and use these tools. The panel consisted of Asif Khan, CEO of Caremerge, which offers integrated mobile and online tools that facilitate better communication between care providers for seniors; Iltifat Husain, MD and founder of iMedicalApps.com, which provides physician reviews of medical and health apps; and Erik Augustson, Program Director of Tobacco Control Research at the National Cancer Institution.
The apps, devices, and capabilities made possible by advanced broadband technologies can deliver tremendous benefits and opportunities. In addition to monitoring devices that can help people manage a number of chronic diseases and conditions from the comfort of their own home, the panelists also discussed some tools that can deliver truly proactive, preventative healthcare that also empowers patients and helps caretakers.
Dr. Husain talked about a few "game changers," such as the development of smart pill bottles that can improve medication compliance by determining how many pills remain in the bottle and then sending text reminders to patients. Wireless sensors and monitors are increasingly being used for chronically ill patients to collect and transmit vital signs and other health data directly to health care providers, eliminating the need for sometimes cumbersome office visits. Health and fitness trackers and apps, already very popular for helping individuals set and reach wellness goals, might also be useful in assisting doctors identify early warning signs of disease in people who appear to be healthy. In fact, using these tools to track health information is so helpful that doctors are beginning to strongly recommend such apps for patients as a means to monitor their health.
But the discussion didn't just dwell on the newest and flashiest toys available. Erik Augustson spoke about the need to sort the tools from the toys and asked, "How do we build tools that really work?" He suggested that innovators and medical professionals think in terms of functionality, which should drive the development process and help encourage behavior changes and better health outcomes. However, a critical first set of questions for patients are: Does this app do what it is supposed to do? Does it provide accurate data/information? And Does it work for me?
All of the panelists spoke about what is needed for these mobile health tools to work: improving health literacy, targeting specific populations, improving functionality of apps, and changing the behaviors and practices of patients and healthcare professionals alike. They all had interesting suggestions and information to share. But absent from the discussion was a thorough examination of the limitations of our current communications infrastructure as well as the role its regulators should play.
The fact is that without a modernized, robust and dynamic wireless broadband infrastructure, those mHealth tools, apps, and devices won't be effective. Additional spectrum (the lifeblood of our networks and wireless devices that transmits this data in a mobile world) is needed to meet consumer demand, fuel innovation, and help carriers offer 21st century speeds and capabilities. It is critical that the FCC move quickly to make more spectrum available for consumer use, and to allow all carriers to compete without restrictions when competing for the spectrum needed. And without smart regulations that prioritize innovation and encourage broadband investment, both the development and use of additional mHealth tools and advancements could slow to a halt.
Technology is always evolving and changing every aspect of our lives. People reach for their mobile devices to help them accomplish any number of tasks and goals, and new mobile tools appear nearly every day that help us with that. The panelists at the Brookings event all spoke about how difficult it is to get people to change behaviors over the long term.
It's difficult to get agencies and regulators to change their ways too. But with the right regulations that encourage broadband investment and deployment, more people and communities will recognize the relevance of high-speed Internet services and the benefits these exciting mobile health technologies offer.