Just as mobile technology has become a seamless part of everyday American life, it is now indispensable to many parts of health care. Consider the enormous popularity of health wearables, or how tablets have untethered physicians from their desks? Or think about how patient engagement has changed with the advent of electronic health records (EHRs) and online patient portals. Imagine all of this at a time when three-quarters of American adults own a smartphone.

One way to understand these changes is through the lens of mobile health, or mHealth – a general term for the use of mobile phones and other wireless technology in health care. As smartphones, tablets and wireless sensors have proliferated, innovators in health care and medicine have found ways to apply these new technologies to solve urgent problems.

The concept of mHealth emerged as early as 2006, but really took off in 2009 with the first mHealth Summit in Washington, DC. Since then, mHealth has been mobilized in all aspects of health care – from consumer education to chronic disease management and text message-based prevention programs.

Here are 5 themes that define the first decade of mHealth.

1) Expanding access to health care

Perhaps the most important application of mHealth is the use of mobile phones to access underserved populations. This is especially true in lower- and middle-income countries, where cellphones are ubiquitous but access to health care can be limited by a lack of human and physical resources, high disease burdens or extreme poverty.

The African Strategies for Health project’s mHealth Compendium Series documents 167 profiles of mHealth programs in Africa. For example, USAID funds a range of projects that use text messages to educate users about family planning methods and where they can get care at local clinics.

Mobile health also has the potential to reduce disparities in access to health care in the United States and other developed countries. As one researcher explains in an early video on the topic, “Unlike computers, mHealth has the ability to reach across the socio-economic divide.”

This impact is clear in a recent literature review, which shows strong evidence that text-messaging initiatives are effective, especially for public health interventions surrounding diabetes self-management, weight loss, physical activity, smoking cessation and medication adherence.

2) Making hospitals and clinics more efficient

Health care providers use mHealth technology to access clinical information, collaborate with care teams and communicate with patients from afar.

One of the biggest benefits relates to EHRs, which are now used by 98 percent of US hospitals. While many physicians feel burdened by the data entry demands of new electronic record systems, smartphones and tablets can improve how medical offices connect to their EHRs. By making it easy for physicians to access patient records from anywhere, mobile devices can make health care more efficient and reduce physician burnout.

Thousands of medical apps have also emerged to help doctors access EHRs, coordinate with their teams or stay up to date with medical literature. For example, Mobius Clinic is an app that makes the smartphone an invaluable clinical tool by automating vital sign collection, coordinate the care team and much more.

Finally, about a third of US providers now use remote patient monitoring and video-based services to promote long-distance clinical care. The use of telemedicine is growing as a way to reduce health care costs and improve the quality of care for patients.

3) Empowering patients

Knowledge is power, and an expanding list of mHealth programs help empower individuals to take a more active role in their health and well being.

This is happening every day on individuals’ smartphones, but also in a targeted way at hospitals and clinics. As a recent Pew Research Study shows, most smartphone users have used their device to gather health-related information in the last year.

Patients’ ability to participate in their care has also been boosted by online patient engagement strategies, which are now used by 70 percent of US hospitals. For example, nearly two-thirds of hospitals allow patients to securely message with their provider. These tools – enabled by mobile devices – make it easier for patients and their families to participate in their care.

4) Chronic disease management

Mobile health has been especially effective as a tool for managing chronic diseases, which are by far the leading cause of poor health globally. Diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes represent 60 percent of all deaths, according to the WHO.

One example is continuous glucose monitoring (CGM), a technology that has made life easier for diabetes patients who need to regularly measure their blood sugar levels to stay healthy. In September 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first continuous CGM system for adults that doesn’t require blood sample calibration. The approval marks the latest addition to a list of mobile health technologies making life easier for diabetes patients, which includes 29 million Americans.

5) Redefining personalized medicine

Personalized medicine usually refers to the practice of using an individual’s genetic profile to guide health decisions, including disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment. But mHealth apps and wearable sensors have given personalized medicine new meaning.

There are now 250,000 health and fitness apps available in major app stores, which make it possible for ordinary people to monitor and understand their individualized health in entirely new ways. Recent surveys show that 61 percent of Americans have downloaded a health app, suggesting that the formerly niche quantified self movement is becoming more mainstream. Combined with a plethora of new wearable devices, health and fitness apps are giving patients and providers access to entirely new sources of data that can personalize care based on real-time tracking of the user’s activities and environment.

“A need is recognized, and at some point mobile technology is viewed as potentially playing a role in a solution.”

Ultimately, a decade of mHealth has shown that mobile devices can help solve many problems in health care and medicine. But it’s important to remember that, as Dr. Carol Torgan, a health strategist and educator, puts it, mHealth is ultimately not about technology but about how we use it.

“The applications that really work and really make a difference all start with the needs of individuals, whether they are patients or health care workers,” Dr. Torgan writes in an article summarizing mHealth. “A need is recognized, and at some point mobile technology is viewed as potentially playing a role in a solution.”

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