The mHealth opportunity

The tremendous uptake of mobile internet provides great potential for improving healthcare. But successful and sustainable deployment of so called mHealth requires a multidisciplinary approach and sound business models. An abstract of the keynote by Pim Ketelaar at the EMGO+ yearly conference, May 19th 2011.

The mobile internet has become ubiquitous. With the latest generation of smartphones, apps and networks we are always on and always connected. Our wildest dreams of not so long ago are realized. And this is only the beginning. Through the mobile internet we can also connect to our healthcare providers, our doctors, our nurses, our caregivers, our peers. And we can consult and update our personal health records from any network device.
Behold the mHealth opportunity: healthcare unplugged, anytime and anywhere!

Three key metrics on the tremendous uptake of mobility:

  • Firstly, there is the growth of the number of smartphones. In the last quarter of 2010, there were more smartphones and tablets sold than PC’s. This animation on the activation of Android smartphones is very illustrative of the viral character of the spread of smartphones.
  • Secondly, there is the growth of mobile bandwidth capacity and, accordingly, usage. Bandwidth is like oxygen, and there is a seemingly insatiable appetite for it. According to Cisco, global mobile data traffic is expected to grow 26 times over the next five years. Though not necessarily designed for high bandwidth transactions, smartphones are very intensively used. Google found out in a survey that 39% of the smartphone users admit to having used their smartphone while going to the bathroom. Google summarized their findings in the following clip:
  • Thirdly, there is the technological advance in the devices itself. Smaller, more powerful, cheaper. The iPad 2 outperforms the famous Cray 2 supercomputer of the mid 80’s. Over 1.5 gigaflops in the palm of your hand. And counting… From the Motorola brick through to the first text message and colour screen to GPS and Android. The question is, what’s next?

No wonder, mHealth is the fast mover in the field of eHealth. Given the exponential developments, mHealth has enormous potential for improving healthcare and for empowering patients ánd professionals. And the good news is: it’s available and affordable now. mHealth, defined as the application of mobile communications in healthcare, is already a thriving business. At least, when you look at the over 20.000 apps that are available from the Apple AppStore and the Android market that are health related.
The spectrum ranges from informative apps on for example medication to apps that will really make your hair grow.

But also more evidence based applications are emerging. And it doesn’t always have to be High Tech, 3G, HD. A simple text message plan can contribute significantly to therapy adherence and, ultimately, quality of life. In many parts of the world, epidemics and a shortage of healthcare workers continue to present grave challenges for governments and health providers. Yet in these same places, the explosive growth of mobile communications over the past decade offers a new hope for the promotion of quality healthcare.
The mHealth Alliance, initiated by the United nations, works on unlocking the benefits of mHealth for underserved communities around the world.

Despite the enormous potential, mHealth applications that are truly and closely embedded in the networks of patients and professionals are not yet abundant. The Holy Grail: mHealth applications that are embraced by patients, professionals and payers. But these do not come out of thin air. Successful and sustainable deployment of mHealth requires a multidisciplinary approach, with lots of emphasis on user experience and marketing. We need to bring the mHealth hype into the reality of daily healthcare practice. We need to involve patients, professionals, payers and policy makers. We need to measure outcomes and we need to develop new measurement instruments for this. For this, we need a thorough mHealth research and development roadmap. And we need to create healthy, sustainable business models. And of course we need pioneers with vision and endurance that just go for it. The Netherlands is a small country with great mHealth opportunity: excellent mobile broadband infrastructure and a world class healthcare system. I believe that the Netherlands has all the ingredients to take the lead in mHealth. This opportunity should be seized, starting now.

Pim Ketelaar, May 2011, Telecom4care.
Telecom4care is the leading and independent Dutch specialist in eHealth and mHealth.

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