Man holding cell phone

Improving health through mobile technology: Beyond the hype

Clinicians are able to pull up patient records using their mobile phones, and patients are increasingly getting and tracking health information from mobile applications
September 25, 2015

E-health and one of its components, mobile technology, are hot topics these days, with the technology revolution having promised for years to transform every aspect of our lives, including health care.

The definition of mobile health technology changes as the digital world itself evolves. Ten years ago, the Internet itself might have been considered mobile, as it was not tied to a physical location in the way a book is. Today, when people talk about mobile health, they more often mean health care or information that involves a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet.

Already clinicians are able to pull up patient records or diagnostic information using their mobile phones, and patients are increasingly getting and tracking health information from mobile applications.

Although some indications are that mobile technology is improving access to health care in developing countries, others say that it has not reached its full potential. Even in the United States, e-health is just beginning to create a fundamental shift in health care with a myriad of applications for health assessments, screening, diagnostics and treatments.

There are more than 165,000 health apps available for smartphone users in the United States, but “apps are just one example of mobile health technology,” said Marcia Ory, Ph.D., MPH, associate dean of research and regents and distinguished professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. Other examples include popular wearable fitness trackers and medicine bottles that can send messages when they are opened, but mobile health can also be as basic as a text message conversation between a patient and a health care provider. Some research has indicated that a simple text message can influence behavior of high-risk groups.

“The technology can be used in many ways by many people,” Ory said. “E-health is fundamentally changing the way we behave and how we manage our health care.”

It has long been assumed that access to technology is a barrier for use among the older or less affluent populations, but this gap is quickly narrowing, as evidenced by the large number of even relatively disadvantaged people worldwide now having at least a basic cellular phone. A bigger problem, perhaps, is that many people with multiple chronic illnesses—arguably, the population most in need of better health care options—consider it a chore to track their own information, and often the data can be scary, overwhelming, sad or otherwise emotionally charged. Researchers like Ory are trying to make it easier for them.

“Because I study healthy aging and disparities,” Ory said, “I’m especially interested in helping older and disadvantaged populations.” To that end, she and her colleagues created a website to help older adults find the best activity to meet their own goals and match their fitness levels. Called Exercise and Screening for You (EASY), the site is a screening tool with a basic public health message: just try to get more active. “Older people and their care providers tend to be nervous about exercise,” Ory said, “and this resource helps tailor the best activity for them.”

They also built and are currently testing MyHealthFinder, which is a tool for social service practitioners, health care providers, patients, caregivers and families that helps identify and locate resources for healthy living. Although the app version is still a work in progress, the website is up and running.

“What we’ve created are mobile technologies that have a variety of purposes all across the health-illness continuum,” Ory said. “Some are interactive, and those are the applications we think are most interesting.”

For example, as part of a large national study called My Own Health Report, the group has tested the use of e-health technologies in primary care settings and found that they can be useful for identifying health risks and stimulating conversations between patients and physicians, which can eventually lead to the patient making behavioral changes. Other applications, such as MINDRx, can automatically follow up with the patient at home to monitor over time whether they’re still doing the things that have been recommended, such as medication adherence. If not, the technology can suggest ways to improve or can notify the health care provider that a follow-up consultation may be useful.

“It’s important to start off with a health problem that technology can help solve and to work collaboratively with technology developers,” Ory said. “It shouldn’t just be technology for sake of technology—although thinking outside of the box is definitely a plus in imagining how technology can improve provider-patient communications and the lives of patients and their families.”

This is the first of a series of articles about mobile health technology. Stay tuned (no pun intended) for the next, which will be about a new app to measure hearing loss.

— Christina Sumners

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