Mobile Health Care Making Its Mark
Of all the technologies with the potential to improve health care delivery and reduce costs, mobile applications may hold the most promise.
A new study from the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution looks at health care delivery in the U.S. and China — two countries with similar problems scaling care and controlling costs — to determine how each is using technology like mobility and remote patient access to its benefit. Early returns are promising.
“Mobile health in the United States has really taken off in recent years,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings and director of CTI. “It’s been estimated there are over 40,000 mobile health applications that are available now. More than 247 million people have downloaded a health care app. There are many different ways people are using mobile devices to access health care.
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“We see many examples of remote monitoring devices that can record people’s vital signs and electronically transmit that to physicians,” West said. “We see that physicians are relying on tablets and handheld devices to get the most up-to-date information on treatment, symptoms, different medications that can be used, possible interaction across drugs, and so on.
“And so we think this is a way that offers great promise in terms of helping with the administrative processing of health care, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of various kinds of diseases.”
West’s assessment is backed up by the experiences of medical professionals in the field.
Gigi Sorenson, a unit director at Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona, points to a heart failure management pilot study running across a vast area of the southwest as an example of the impact technology is having on FMC patients and caregivers.
“Patients feel they are very connected to their caregiver,” said Sorenson. “The counties where we deliver the majority of our care to our patients, the average population density is 10 patients per square mile at times. It can be very remote. And with us covering 62,000 square miles of land, it can be challenging to get patients in.
“Having the ability to remotely monitor these patients so they don’t have to travel two or three hours for a 15-minute physician appointment is critical,” said Sorenson. “We have found patients become very engaged in their health care through this ability to monitor themselves at home, to feel safe at home by themselves, or with an elderly parent in their home. And it’s been just remarkable how they’ve adapted to it.”
Mobile health is not without its challenges. Among the obstacles both here and abroad is a reluctance among policymakers to reimburse doctors for interacting with patients remotely. The technology, West points out, is seen as untried and unproven by payers like The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. These agencies want demonstrable results, which are difficult to come by until the technology is more broadly adopted.
Brookings suggests policies and practices must change to facilitate the continued growth of mobile health and capture its benefits, like improving the affordability of health care and lowering disparities based on geography and income. West and his team suggest policymakers encourage the use and adoption of cellphones, smartphones and tablets in medical care and reimburse health providers who offer consultations, diagnoses and treatment through remote monitoring devices and other types of mobile technologies.
Doing so offers one additional benefit beyond the obvious, the Brookings report points out: When policymakers get on board with mobile-enabled health care and champion its adoption, there are likely to enjoy vastly improved health data collection and analysis.
“Figuring out what works and doesn’t work is one of the biggest challenges in health care,” the report concludes.