mHealth: Miles to Go Before We Sleep

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Donna Malvey, PhD, explains the benefits and challenges of mHealth adoption all over the world. Photo via shutterstock.

90% of American adults have smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. They’re using their smartphones to navigate a reliable route to a new restaurant or to snag a new pair of jeans. But they’re not yet embracing mHealth, according to Donna Malvey, PhD, co-author of mHealth: Transforming Healthcare and an associate professor in the Department of Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida (Orlando).

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Dr. Donna Malvey. Photo provided.

This week, we picked Dr. Malvey’s brain about her book and the promise of mHealth. Here’s what we learned:

Q: Give me a pulse on mHealth today.

Physicians aren’t really buying into mHealth just yet, and neither are patients – at least on a grand scale. I do see physicians and patients engaged when it comes to the telehospice environment. Physicians in those cases appreciate it and see the utility for their patients.

We’re living in a world where we expect doctors to do more than just practice medicine. We’re looking for them to tweet daily and use a variety of mobile applications. Most have no skills in this area. What we really want are doctors who practice good medicine.

Q: Why are some mHealth apps more successful than others? In your book, you mention the iTriage app, specifically, as a successful example.

iTriage is a mobile app my physician uses. She finds value in iTriage because it allows her to deliver a more personalized experience with me as her patient.

There’s also been a lot of great work with diabetes monitoring. What I really love about these apps is they give you the ability to make caring for your diabetes a daily thing. Diabetes is a chronic illness that young people will have to manage throughout their lives. They’re looking at decades of visits to a doctor or nurse practitioner, but they only have access to that care a dozen times a year. With diabetes monitoring apps, they can interact with their care givers. The power of that experience is something I’d compare to a 12-step program that’s used to overcome addiction. It’s much easier to come to grips with a really challenging chronic illness if there’s a daily reminder or a pat on the back.

Q: What’s your take on recent draft guidance from the FDA on regulating general wellness apps?

One of the barriers to mHealth adoption is overregulation. General wellness and lifestyle products have created a serious backlog for the FDA and diverted the agency’s attention from regulating products that have higher risk profiles. With the latest draft guidance, the FDA is making progress toward reducing such adoption barriers. The draft guidance recognizes that low-risk general wellness products, especially those products that help people adopt healthier lifestyles or manage chronic conditions, don’t require stringent oversight.

Q: Many technology leaders in healthcare are focusing on mobile apps for younger patients. What do you think about that?

That’s a loaded question. Millennials are healthy. When I was their age, I hardly went to the doctor, unless I had an earache or a serious illness. It’s older people and those with chronic illnesses who go to the doctor. I’m really interested in a Pew Research Center study that found that people with chronic illnesses learn how to use computers specifically to search out reliable information about their condition and to stay in contact with their doctor. This is especially the case for people who have illnesses not shared by a huge population. Bottom line, patients will do whatever it takes to cope with their illnesses. I believe that technology leaders should spend more time focusing on these patients, rather than younger patients who are generally healthy.

Q: You write in your book about the ability of mHealth to transform healthcare delivery in third-world countries. Tell me more.

In the United States and Europe, mHealth apps are more superficial, as in they’re not a necessity. In third-world countries, these apps are the difference between life and death. If you’re in Africa and you have a sick baby, mHealth apps enable you to get healthcare you would normally not have access to.

In China and India, in particular, mobile apps can bring healthcare to rural areas. These countries don’t have the regulations that most Western countries have, so it’s easier for them to seek faster growth with mHealth apps. What’s also interesting is companies’ search for ways to sustain battery life for phones, which need battery power. People are sharing mobile phones in these countries, and they’re being used constantly. The West is trying to focus resources on fixing this problem.

Aine Cryts

Aine Cryts

    Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.

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