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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 12/22/2011

Can the U.S. government hack health care?

Could you cell phone be the solution to health-care? (Jerome Favre - BLOOMBERG)

The federal government may be on the way to a successful hacking of health-care, and the path may lead straight through your cell phone.

On Dec. 6, the federal government launched the month-long Healthy Apps challenge to encourage the creation of new mobile applications that can help people make healthy lifestyle choices. By shifting the health-care debate to the level of the mobile device and encouraging people to think in terms of lightweight apps instead of massive spending programs, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is helping to shrink the scope of the seemingly intractable health-care debate facing the country.

If the Healthy Apps challenge can start to generate the same kind of excitement and success as other hackathons and prize competitions in the private sector, it might show that it’s possible for the U.S. government to hack health care.

After all, so many of the massive health-care solutions the federal government tends to create, such as “ObamaCare” (as it is known by those on the ideological right), are so large and complex that they inevitably run afoul of partisan debate.

Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. (Mike Kittrell - AP)
But what happens when you gamify the health-care equation or when thinking big means thinking small? The winning selections from the Healthy Apps challenge will not just be those that solve an important health problem using data — they will be the solutions that, according to Benjamin, integrate a “fun factor,” are tailored to the needs of people who are not “high tech” or early adopters and, to top it all off, Benjamin will personally test-drive the winning solutions.

That’s where things get interesting, because Benjamin has been at the forefront of finding solutions to under-resourced, under-served populations for years. Before she became Surgeon General, she was the founder of a rural health clinic in Alabama and rose to prominence for her leadership skills in the South in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Oh, and did I point out that she was a winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant award in 2008?

The reason why mobile health is one of the fastest-growing segments of the global health care industry is that it is the perfect fit for under-funded, hard-to-reach populations. People who do not have computers still have mobile phones. As a result, some predict that the mobile health industry could grow even faster over the coming decade, to become a multi-billion-dollar market opportunity. Mobile health has already skyrocketed to prominence in the emerging markets. Now that people are relying more so on their mobile phones, it makes sense to turn to mobile health solutions in developed markets as well.

Think about some of the fun developments that are starting to come out of the mobile health field. The new Jawbone UP — a Wi-Fi enabled bracelet that syncs with an iPhone app to help you develop a healthier lifestyle is a popular choice on many year-end holiday gift lists. It is also the type of innovation that could emerge out of future mobile health competitions. Healthy apps are starting to become a mini cottage industry, with Trendhunter recently highlighting 20 of the most important new healthy apps that claim to do everything from being your personal trainer to measuring happiness. In 2012, mobile apps will likely become an even more important part of the mobile health-care revolution.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the same energy and innovation that has emerged at large prize competitions like the federal government’s DARPA challenges can be transferred to the much slower-moving health-care field. Nevertheless, the Healthy Apps challenge is an important first step to re-framing the debate over health care. By turning to mobile health solutions and prize competitions that favor grassroots innovation, the U.S. federal government might just be able to crack the colossal health-care innovation challenge. Solving the nation’s health-care problems? It appears there may soon be an app for that.

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By  |  07:00 AM ET, 12/22/2011

Categories:  Business, Dominic Basulto, Invention, Morning Read, Technology

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