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Mobile phones become tools of health promotion

WASHINGTON. NOV.10. Col. Ronald K. Poropatich, MS, MD, Deputy Director, U.S. Army Medical Research & Material Command speaks and is projected onto large screens at the panel discussion on Optimizing Privacy and Data Security at Health Summit in Washington DC on Nov.10, 2010 ( Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan )
WASHINGTON. NOV.10. Col. Ronald K. Poropatich, MS, MD, Deputy Director, U.S. Army Medical Research & Material Command speaks and is projected onto large screens at the panel discussion on Optimizing Privacy and Data Security at Health Summit in Washington DC on Nov.10, 2010 ( Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey Macmillan - Jeffrey Macmillan For Washington Post)

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By Steven Overly
Monday, November 15, 2010

When District-based Voxiva released a free text message service in February sending prenatal health advice to expectant mothers, the technology firm hoped it would be a successful example of mobile health in the United States.

Nine months later, they say it has delivered.

The company and the other minds behind "text4baby" said at last week's mHealth Summit that more than 100,000 mothers-to-be have used the service. Johnson & Johnson also made a multimillion-dollar pledge over several years to help grow the program.

The idea of monitoring patients and promoting healthy behavior through mobile phones and other portable devices has emerged as a potential method to reduce the costs of health care while improving quality.

And as Congress makes money available to digitize medical records and fund innovative research, the government has put forth financial incentives for small firms and big corporations alike to explore new approaches to health care.

"It's really gratifying to see the field of mobile health grow into its own," said Paul Meyer, Voxiva's co-founder, chairman and president. "The best solutions combine different technologies to interact with the same person in different ways about different information."

Last week's second-annual summit attracted 2,400 registered attendees, about three times as many as the year before. It's sponsored by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health in association with the National Institutes of Health and mHealth Alliance.

The event attracted high-profile speakers, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, who spoke of the opportunities to improve health care here and in developing countries with mobile devices.

But the optimism was tempered by the acknowledgment that there are hurdles to be overcome.

The wide variety of mobile devices, operating systems and network speeds creates complexity. The business models have yet to fully take shape as to who pays for services and who profits. And with a field as regulated as health and human services, a need to establish standards still exists.

"[The] biggest risk right now is controlling the chaos of an emerging market -- ensuring that the many excellent ideas out there are being evaluated in a constructive and safe manner," said Larry Albert, executive vice president of the health care sector at Chantilly-based Agilex Technologies, who attended the conference.

But there remains little doubt that key stakeholders are interested in the field's success, especially the government and corporate officials who attendees said must work in tandem if mobile health is to gain traction in the United States.

Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra addressed the convention to reaffirm the Obama administration's commitment to health care innovation that complies with privacy laws. Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said the success of text4baby has prompted the agency to look at broadening the approach to other health issues.

Meanwhile, an exhibit hall where companies presented mobile health products and services was splashed with advertisements from Verizon and Qualcomm Wireless Health. Skype sponsored a set of wireless Internet stations. Information technology giant Hewlitt-Packard announced a $1 million donation over two years to the mHealth Alliance.

"Big industry is paying attention," said David Aylward, the alliance's executive director. He said for the field to succeed "you've got to have big deal companies that know how to do this at big scale."

Albert agreed the presence of big business lends credibility to the market, adding that the penetration of mobile phones, particularly those with access to the Web, makes the field too promising to disregard.

"Ultimately, I think that you have to look at the projected dominance of the mobile Internet in the coming years. This means that mobile technology will certainly have a big role in the future of health care -- we just need to figure out the compelling business case," Albert said.


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