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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/23/2012

Mobile: The health-care fix we’ve been waiting for?


Parts of a mobile phone are pictured in this illustration photo taken in Berlin June 1, 2011. (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI - REUTERS)

It is projected that there will be more than 10 billion mobile devices in use around the world by 2016, and a new report from Brookings Institution’s Darrell West outlines just how powerful mobile devices could be in the battle to bring down health care costs while simultaneously improving and expanding care.

The report, published Tuesday and titled “How Mobile Devices are Transforming Healthcare,” outlines some of the latest findings in the mobile health, or “mHealth,” market, including improvements to remote monitoring technologies, which Brookings’ Robert Litan projects could save as much as $197 billion over the next 25 years in the U.S. alone.

“Mobile health devices provide an opportunity for people to take better care of themselves in ways that could deal with future cost issues,” said West, during a phone call Tuesday.

Devices such as “Gluco Phones” to monitor blood sugar levels and iHeal to keep track of substance abusers, stand to shift care into the hands of patients and slowly decrease the burden on health care providers as face-to-face care becomes less frequent, West said.


Bottles of various GlaxoSmithKline Plc medicines are displayed at a pharmacy in Mumbai, India, on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011. (Adeel Halim - BLOOMBERG)
The incorporation of mobile technology into health care is not new, but West brings together a number of findings to create a more detailed picture of a leaner health-care landscape powered by mobile. This new landscape stands to benefit patient groups, such as the elderly and expectant mothers, in need of better day-in-day-out health-care monitoring.

“There are 40,000 mhealth applications that are available,” said West, “The opportunity for consumers to find something of interest to them is very high.”

Then there’s the potential to mitigate medical errors. According to the study, mobile health care has been found to have a positive impact there too:

Indeed, error avoidance is one of the primary strengths of mHealth. A study of nurses relying upon handheld devices found that 16 percent said the mobile equipment had helped them avoid at least one error in clinical treatment while another six percent indicated it had enabled them to avoid errors on multiple occasions. These positive findings demonstrate that mHealth has the ability to improve service delivery and save money in health care.

Why does West’s study matter? Let’s start with the obesity epidemic — in the United States it’s growing, most notably among youth. A paper in the May edition of the journal Pediatrics, as reported by NPR’s Rob Stein Monday, finds that incidences of diabetes or “prediabetes” among 3,383 youth ages 12 to19 jumped from 9 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2008. Imagine if doctors could track all of their patients’ glucose data remotely, rather than through regular check-ups and, perhaps, identify children prone to diabetes even earlier.

“We have the combination of rising obesity and rising diabetes,” said West. “These developments are going to cost billions in health care down the road.”

Would it be better if obesity rates overall were on the decline? Of course. But, assuming the trend continues, something will have to change — that something may be how diabetics and others with chronic illness use their phones.


Could mobile monitoring allow for better management of diabetes care? (Reed Saxon - AP)
And then there are the three barriers to fast adoption: Policy, regulation and payments.

“There needs to be policy changes that recognize the new landscape of medical care and the benefits of remote monitoring devices, preventive medicine, text reminders to take medication, and electronic consultations,” West writes. After all, if doctors can’t get paid to go mobile, they won’t do it — regardless of whether a majority of patients are in favor of change, which, West writes, they are.

Even in light of popular support, don’t look for mHealth on the campaign trail. When it comes to mobile health both presidential candidates, at least according to West, have been mum.

“I have not heard either one of the candidates express detailed policy positions on mHealth,” said West, even as America continues to get sicker and health-care more expensive.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 05/23/2012

Categories:  Health, Technology

 
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