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What is mHealth and How Can It Improve Patient Care?

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Scientist and professor Robert Istepanian is credited with having coined and defined the concept of "mHealth" (i.e., mobile health) in 2003. Just eight years later, in her speech at the mHealth Summit, Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary at the time, said, "When we talk about mobile health, we are talking about taking the biggest technology breakthrough of our time … And while we have a way to go, we can already imagine a remarkable future in which control over your health is always within hand's reach."

Since then, the embracing of and appreciation for mHealth and its role in healthcare has continued to grow. So, what is mHealth and why is it so significant? In this blog, we will share a few definitions of mHealth and some examples of mHealth and the role it can, and often already is playing in improving patient care.

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Definition of mHealth

While there is no standardized definition for mHealth, we can gain a better understanding of the term and what it encompasses by looking at some widely cited and recognized definitions.

Istepanian's definition of mHealth is "emerging mobile communications and network technologies for healthcare systems."

The Global Observatory for eHealth of the World Health Organization defines mHealth as "medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices, such as mobile phones, patient monitoring devices, personal digital assistants, and other wireless devices." 

The National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center says mHealth "uses mobile technologies as tools and platforms for health research and healthcare delivery."

Finally, an mHealth Intelligence article notes that, "The mobile health industry is defined as the generation, accumulation, and exchange of medical information through mobile and wireless tools."

Mobile Health Technology Examples 

Here are some examples of mHealth technology and how they aim to enhance the delivery of patient care.

Remote Patient Monitoring

Remote patient monitoring is the use of devices to capture patient data at one location and then transmit it electronically to healthcare professionals at a different location. These professionals can then review the data and make treatment decisions.

As the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) notes, remote patient monitoring programs can collect a range of health data, including patient vital signs, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate. CCHP goes on to state that, "Monitoring programs can … help keep people healthy, allow older and disabled individuals to live at home longer, and avoid having to move into skilled nursing facilities. Remote patient monitoring can also serve to reduce the number of hospitalizations, readmissions, and lengths of stay in hospitals — all of which help improve quality of life and contain costs."

Point-of-Care Diagnostics

This is an area of mHealth that is likely to see significant developments in the coming years. As a National Institute of Health (NIH) fact sheet notes, point-of-care diagnostic testing "… allows patient diagnoses in the physician's office, an ambulance, the home, the field, or in the hospital. The results of care are timely and allow rapid treatment to the patient."

Recognizing the value mHealth can bring to point-of-care diagnostics, the National Science Foundation awarded a five-year, $10 million grant in 2018 to an interdisciplinary effort led by Rice University to work toward creating "… wearable and point-of-care microscopes that use on-chip illumination and sensing to non-invasively aid in the diagnosis and monitoring of nearly 100 health conditions that today require a biopsy or blood test," a news release notes.

If the team of investigators is successful, the benefits of the mHealth device would be significant. As Rice Professor Ashutosh Sabharwal, the principal investigator on the grant, said in the release, "Imagine a wearable device no larger than a watch that uses sensors to continuously measure white blood cell count and wirelessly communicate with the oncologist's office. The patient could go about their daily life. They'd only have to go to the hospital if there was a problem."

Medication Management

An example of mHealth starting to gain significant traction in its adoption is mobile medication management. Mobile medication management can encompass many types of mHealth solutions that are designed for healthcare organizations, providers, and patients.

Mobile medication management is an area of expertise for Cureatr. Meds 360° is our medication management platform that provides organizations and clinicians — including physicians and pharmacists — with a comprehensive view of a patient's medication history. Among Meds 360°'s many benefits: the ability for clinicians to reduce medication errors and improve medication adherence following patient encounters.

As an HIT Consultant article states, "By integrating critical medication management technologies with the convenience of mobile devices, physicians are armed with a comprehensive range of patient-centered technologies that extend to the full lifecycle of patient care, regardless of their physical location."  

Medical Imaging

One of the most exciting and emerging applications for mHealth is in the field of medical imaging. As smartphone technology has seen significant improvements in recent years (e.g., image quality, camera capabilities, speed, data transfer), companies are working to take advantage of these more powerful devices to transform imaging.

For example, the Butterfly iQ is a pocket-sized ultrasound device that connects to a smartphone. As a Fast Company article notes, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 for 13 clinical applications, including obstetric, lung, and cardiac imaging. At about $2,000, the device costs substantially less than traditional ultrasound machines, which, as the article states, "… puts the device within reach of smaller medical practices, health clinics, and first responders. It could help patients, too, by saving them a hospital visit."

While that price may sound low, how about $100? University of British Columbia engineers announced in 2018 that they had developed an ultrasound transducer (i.e., probe) that is no bigger than a Band-Aid, is portable, wearable, and can be powered by a smartphone.

Substantial savings associated with the technology are attributable, in part, to researchers replacing the piezoelectric crystals used in conventional scanners with tiny vibrating drums made of polymer resin that are cheaper to manufacture.

The future of mHealth for medical imaging — and many other applications — looks very bright.

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