As a new member of the HITLAB staff, I was eager to apply a mHealth lens to my background in healthcare and nutrition. I had two missions while attending the 2014 mHealth Summit this past December: first, to establish where mHealth stands in today’s healthcare system and second, to get a sense of where it’s headed. With the mHealth bandwagon moving as fast as it is, now more than ever is the time to address barriers preventing mHealth from becoming a technological bubble.

“Wellness” is the buzzword in today’s chronic disease-filled world, and mHealth has been identified as a key tool for maintaining it. However, maintenance implies a need for continuity, which brings us to the main issue with mHealth: lack of engagement.  At the Summit, Dr. Joseph Kvedar from Partners Healthcare shared the fact that 80 percent of health apps were abandoned within two weeks of adoption.  People may be buying into the mHealth craze, but mHealth is lacking the ‘stickiness’ required to engage people long enough for meaningful change in health outcome. One discussed approach to this issue is a greater emphasis on personalization. Harry Reynolds from IBM said it best when he said, “If you’re going to travel with me, make it about me,” which further emphasizes the need for health apps to gain daily relevance for engagement maintenance. Personalizable products that consumers can easily incorporate into their daily lives are necessary to prevent mHealth tools from hindering the lives they intend to enhance.

Summit speakers introduced a new ingredient into an old recipe for engagement: incentivization. One thought leader established the formula for loyalty as consistent connection between reward and behavior. Traditionally, this may have referred to a company-sponsored fitness device/gift card reward for employees who walk a specified number of steps in a month. However it appears that while consumers may enjoy these perks, they are looking for a more meaningful reward—trust in a tool that truly helps them become stronger or healthier. Which brings us to the next issue with mHealth: quality.

The lack of standardized assessments for mHealth tools makes it difficult not only for ordinary consumers, but also for healthcare professionals hoping to give dependable recommendations on apps. This is particularly important considering that, according to Jon West from QLess, the adoption of apps by consumers is much greater when suggested by a physician. Some federal regulations are currently in place to ensure the safety of mHealth devices, but meeting federal regulations does not necessarily translate into quality. In fact, Linda Ricci from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it clear that not all mHealth tools need to follow the mandates set out by the agency. There is great need for mHealth quality assessment, but until these standards are established, there are key areas designers can focus on to build products of worth. 

A quality mHealth product acknowledges that information dissemination is not equivalent to inspiration. Remembering that the ultimate goal for mHealth tools is to improve health outcomes, we would do well to follow the words of Janet Schijns, Verizon Enterprise Solutions’ vice president of global verticals and channel marketing, who expressed the need to deliver meaningful information “in the minute that matters” to the consumer.  Our focus needs to shift from simple data aggregation to getting the right information to the right people at the right time. Dreams of preventing heart attacks and even suicides through the detection of high-risk biometric data highlight the next steps for mHealth technology. This means bringing in key players, such as physicians and other necessary healthcare professionals, into the design and development process.

Interoperability is another key attribute of quality mHealth technology. Interoperability refers to the ability of mHealth devices to seamlessly communicate data to each other. The sensitive nature of health data puts greater weight on the need for security and reliability in mHealth-related tools. Single connections are simple to test, but more studies are needed to ensure that multiple connections are dependable. Others believe that the real issue behind interoperability is cultural. In order to achieve interoperability, sharing of data between private, public, cultural, and business sectors needs to occur. Successful integration of mHealth into our healthcare system requires collaboration between involved sectors to address issues regarding HIPAA, reimbursement, privacy, etc. This expands the necessity of interoperability from a mere technical requisite to a broader systematic one.  In other words, a powerful mHealth tool is not only digitally analogous, but also integrates smoothly into our flawed but nonetheless well-established healthcare system.

Leaving the summit, I felt saturated with both information and enthusiasm. If I had to summarize my experience in one statement, it is that the vision of a more person-centered approach to health lies at the core of mHealth innovation. As mHealth works through political and technical issues, the main puzzle is learning how to shape mHealth into a tool that can fundamentally shift the way people live. Embracing the overwhelming variety of hopes, fears, habits, and predispositions while teasing out the underlying similarities that make human beings human may be the key to stimulating a united movement amongst otherwise very different individuals. While the level of work needed to push mHealth forward is great, the ultimate impact is even greater.



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