Mobile Healthcare Has Ills, But the Prognosis Is Good

Mobile technology has the potential to make a huge contribution for advancements in global healthcare, but incorporating it isn’t without significant challenges. The mHealth Summit is currently underway in Washington, D.C., where healthcare experts have come together to address these challenges and determine the best courses of action to put the technology to good use.

Properly using mobile technology in global healthcare has three immediate benefits: bringing medical consultation to remote patients, allowing professionals to monitor patients remotely and making patient information universally available to the healthcare system. Patients in developing countries often have little or no access to adequate healthcare, and the global proliferation of mobile phones makes it possible for providers to make initial consultations remotely.

A trial in India is providing initial medical consultation to those living in remote areas currently without local medical care via mobile phone for the equivalent of a dollar. The trial illustrates one of the challenges medical researchers have in putting mobile technology to use for better healthcare. Researchers must rely on third parties, such as handset manufacturers or network operators, as partners, since those companies own the networks and provide the devices. Those same partners want to lock the researchers into their networks or gear with exclusive deals, shutting out options the healthcare professionals want to try. The Indian trial involves exclusive participation of one mobile operator, but in this instance, the company’s 47 million customers are sufficient to produce good results. That’s not always the case, which is one reason why exclusive partnerships can hinder researchers.

However, the biggest challenge in bringing mobile technology to healthcare is the rapid pace of technology advancement compared with the plodding nature of medical trials to test the technology. It’s standard for such trials to take five years, during which technology can leapfrog ahead, rendering the approved devices moot. To put the timeframe in perspective, five years ago, the smartphone didn’t exist. Medical trials started just a few years ago are not addressing the appearance of the iPhone (s aapl) and Android (s goog), two major factors in the evolution of smartphone technology. Researchers must speed up medical trials involving rapidly evolving technology, without compromising the objectives of such trials.

Smartphone technology is already being used for remote patient monitoring in the U.S., as we recently reported. This type of mobile healthcare needs to spread globally, a challenge in developing countries where smartphone adoption is lagging. The appearance of low-cost smartphones should help put them in more hands and kick-start the use of such mobile technology.

While mobile platforms (Android, iOS, etc.) are major players in the mobile technology segment, they are not as important to healthcare research as the cloud. Access to medical information online is driving medical uses, since it can provide global access to patient records in a scalable fashion. While local medical uses don’t require large storage capacity, such capacity is necessary for healthcare on a global scale. A key ingredient to improving global healthcare is developing standards for medical records that can be accessed by professionals treating patients both locally and remotely. This brings privacy and security concerns to the forefront, and the healthcare industry is trying to work through these significant issues.

The mHealth Summit will be running for another two days, and we’ll be monitoring activities for important information. Mobile technology has the potential to provide a significant step forward in global medical care, but the challenges are formidable.

Image credit: Flickr user US Army Africa

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