How mHealth Should Help Patients Control Their Health

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This article was first published to Healthcare Financial Management on February 18, 2015.
The term mHealth refers to mobile devices and applications that can connect individuals with different constituencies in the healthcare system. A significant component of current mHealth solutions is their ability to transfer selected patient health attributes to provider networks. These networks—comprising physicians, nurse practitioners. and case workers—may use the information to identify red flags in patient behavior, which can prompt the providers to take proactive steps to manage a potential medical issue before it escalates, thereby improving patient health and reducing costs.

It’s no surprise that mHealth is the latest buzz in today’s complicated healthcare landscape. Ninety percent of American adults own a cell phone. With a distribution channel already in place, as well as a low cost of entry to develop software programs, the number of mHealth solutions is exploding. Excitement over the potential impact of mHealth adaptation has been fed by results of studies crediting the technology with amazing cost savings opportunities. Yet given the immaturity of the market, it is difficult to produce any reliable estimates of long-term, comprehensive savings that might be achieved using this technology. What can be said with certainty is there is good reason to believe mHealth can reduce administrative costs and—probably more important—the number of dangerous and/or unnecessary clinical events. The new technology holds considerable promise for all of us.

It’s also the latest technology game-changer heralded in the U.S. healthcare system—and probably the most significant one since the idea of electronic health records began to proliferate. Healthcare constituents are expected to collaborate for coordinated care delivery through accountable care organizations. Information is supposed to be easily shared through health information exchanges. The list goes on. But the challenges to success remain the same: Patient privacy hinders information-sharing across platforms, and across organizations.

And there’s nothing about mHealth, at its current level of development, that will prevent it from falling prey to the structural issues challenging other healthcare innovations. As long as patients are accessing care from multiple providers using different systems, their complete health information may never be connected. Without comprehensive connectivity, our healthcare system will remain inefficient.

One possible way to address this issue is to change conventional thinking: What if mHealth solutions were created for the patient, not for the provider? For a simple analogy that can show how this approach might work, let’s consider something truly mobile: a car.

Consider the ways a driver could benefit from having a car-service mobile app. In an ideal world, all the data about a driver’s car would reside not with the individual service providers, but with the vehicle owner. The app could text the driver, for instance, when his or her vehicle’s odometer reaches a certain level, indicating the need for an oil change.

Let’s say that, prior to the service, the service center’s records indicate the transmission lines of the driver’s car also need to be cleaned. Without the app, the driver might not be able to remember whether this additional work had been done by another service provider—for example, when a fuse cluster needed to be replaced during a road trip.

With the mobile app, the driver would be able to call up all the services completed on the vehicle and determine that the transmission lines were recently cleaned, thereby avoiding paying an additional fee for a service that is not required.

Consider the implications of such an app if the concept were applied health care. A patient’s health information should reside not with his or her various providers, but with the individual patient. A truly transformative function of an mHealth solution might be to serve as the local repository for all individual healthcare episodes. Having such an app would enable patients to take control of their own information, while allowing providers access to a comprehensive, episodic history with the touch of a thumbprint.

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