The Unrealized Potential of mHealth
Predictions about the rapid growth of the mobile healthcare market in the future are paired with great optimism about what this technology can achieve, but despite the progress that has been made, there are still some significant limitations and concerns that might restrict the uptake of this type of technology. Until these issues can be addressed, the potential of mHealth may remain unrealized.
The Year’s Top Inventions
The growing importance of mHealth and healthcare technology in general is reflected by the inclusion of four healthcare related creations on the list of the 25 best inventions of 2013 produced by Time magazine. The selected healthcare inventions included an artificial pancreas, which can monitor blood glucose levels and control insulin release in response to them to treat type 1 diabetes, and the Rewalk bionic suit, which can translate the user’s shifts in balance and body weight into the movements of powered braceson the limbs and torso, enabling them to stand and walk. Two other healthcare inventions on the list were of more relevance to mobile healthcare. The Argus II combines an artificial retina with a video sensor mounted on a pair of glasses to improve the vision of people affected by retinitis pigmentosa, while the Edible Password Pill created by Motorola demonstrates how technology is being created that can allow communication between the body and mobile devices. The pill is currently being developed simply as a tiny chip that can be swallowed and powered by stomach acid, emitting a password signal so the user can be recognized by asmartphone or computer, but this technology might go on to have application in mHealth and other fields.
These developments in mHealth technology are matched by rapid growth in the value of the mHealth market. Its estimated value in 2012 was $6.7 billion, but it is expected to reach $8.3 billion by the end of 2013. Over the remainder of the decade, increasing investment in healthcare around the world, together with the development of better mHealth applications, is likely to result in even stronger growth. The global mHealth market has been projected to grow to $58.8 billion by the year 2020, which would reflect an annual compound growth rate of 32.3%.
Limitations for mHealth
Despite these signals of a positive future for mHealth, there are still some doubts about how useful the technology may be, at least in its current state. Although many of these doubts are likely to be removed as the technology develops further and as people become more comfortable with using mHealth technologies, they are still significant limiting factors that the industry needs to take account of as they create and promote their products.
The technology itself can be limiting, since mHealth apps will need to be both functional and meaningful if they are to play a significant role in healthcare, rather than simply being novelties. A recent survey of approximately 43,000 mHealth apps available from iTunes found that there were serious limitations in functionality. Only 10% of the apps scored above 40 out of 100 when rated for 25 clinical functionalities, and there were significant gaps in the types of conditions and populations being catered for, with those in greatest need, such as the elderly and people in developing countries, rarely being targeted. Popular mHealth apps were more likely to be used for monitoring diet and weight loss than for serious health conditions. The limited functionality of mHealth apps limited their use, with just five apps representing 15% of all mHealth downloads from the store, and half of the apps having been downloaded fewer than 500 times. The technology on which the apps can be used might also limit the uptake of mHealth products, since consumers are likely to have concerns about relying on mobile devices that could be damaged, run out of power, or lose their signal, for important healthcare services such as monitoring and reminders to take medication. The technology needs to be more reliable if people are to depend on it for their health.
Other significant limiting factors relate to the patient populations who mHealth has the potential to help. Although access to mobile devices capable of supporting mHealth applications is widespread in many parts of the world, there are still gaps in access in poorer populations and in the elderly, whose great need for healthcare services is often matched by a reluctance to adopt new technologies, which can make providing these services through mHealth more difficult. The willingness and ability of target populations to use mHealth products will be a serious limiting factor in the future, and it must be addressed if these technologies are to reach the people who can benefit from them. Mobile healthcare may remain an unrealized technology of the future for some time, before both medical professionals and consumers are willing to adopt and rely on it for their healthcare.
by Evelyn Dunne