This blog is co-posted with Medicine in the Moment.
Ask any tech-savvy layperson to describe mobile health, and they will mention sleek, high-tech wearables and smartly-designed activity-trackers. Companies like Fitbit, Apple and Nike have successfully bestowed a sense of style upon the industry; and, as more players compete, newer products with flashier design and higher functionality are flooding the marketplace. This deepened focus on bells and whistles has convinced much of the world that discerning gadget enthusiasts are the target audience for mobile health. Yet, a look beyond the glossy façade of mainstream products, which range from apps detailing yoga positions, to sleep trackers, to designer jewelry with biometric monitoring, brings the vernacular use of the term “mobile health” into question.
If we believe that health and fitness are different things, perhaps we would be wise to name the large universe of fitness and lifestyle devices and apps as belonging to a “mobile fitness” industry. We could then reserve the “mobile health” moniker for technologies that impact the clinical experience and tangibly address disease. Though they don’t get as much media coverage as the RunKeepers and Fuel Bands of the world, clinical and disease-focused innovations like the OmniPod, the Propellor Health Sensor, and the work being done by organizations like HealtheVillages, are creating value on a different scale and in a different way, and may be mobile health’s unsung heroes.
OmniPod- Wireless Insulin Pump
The OmniPod by Insulet, the first FDA-approved wearable and wireless insulin pump for Type 1 diabetics, attaches painlessly to the body via cannula and is usable for up to three days. Wearers are free to go about their daily lives—sleep eat, exercise and bathe—while the waterproof pump administers a steady stream of insulin. A handheld controller is used in conjunction with the pod to guide users through insulin delivery; it has a built in blood glucose meter, a wireless remote, and an in depth food library to help with counting carbs. This technology not only eases the burden of maintenance and helps eliminate risks of disease-related complications—it enhances quality of life.
Propeller Health Sensor
More than 50 million people in the U.S. are affected by asthma and COPD, prompting Propeller Health to develop a small sensor that attaches to an inhaler and wirelessly syncs to the patient’s smartphone. The sensor not only monitors usage frequency—it also keeps track of the time and place in which patients use their inhalers so they’re able to accurately identify trigger patterns. Data from the sensor provides users with reports about their symptoms and medication use, which can be reviewed by their physician.
For parents with asthmatic children, this technology can be used to monitor and control the disease, allowing for alerts when a child uses his inhaler. One of the most important tasks of an asthmatic or COPD patient is to track symptom triggers and frequency of rescue inhaler usage. Propeller’s technology revolutionizes this process by taking the user error out of capturing this sort of data.
The World Health Organization reports that, in 2012, citizens of Europe and the Americas were twice as likely to have access to physicians in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific. Health eVillages, a collaboration between our own Physicians Interactive and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, is helping to solve this problem by arming health care providers in clinically underserved areas like earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Uganda and rural Louisiana, with smartphones and tablets containing medical reference and clinical decision support resources. Healthcare professionals in these regions, some of who still rely on outdated medical textbooks, can use these tools and training materials to accurately diagnose and treat patients. HealtheVillages, and other organizations like it, are creating unprecedented access to health care among a global population of patients who have seen decades of care disparity.
When it comes to discussing, and evaluating, the role of mobile health, we must look beyond novelty and aesthetic appeal, and consider the role of product need, access, and the ability to leverage unique opportunities provided by mobile technology. Developing marketable products is good, but doing the greatest good for the most people is better. We must remain committed to investing in mHealth solutions that have the greatest impact in closing serious gaps in health care around the world.
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