mHealth: the unseen potential in every patient’s pocket
23rd June 2015 – by Sophie Crousse
How can we ensure efficient and equitable access to healthcare systems in difficult economic times? This key question dominates the debate over modern healthcare. Strained resources and an ageing population create increasing pressure on demand for innovative and costly products and services. And yet, the digital revolution today provides greater access to information than ever before. How can we help citizens square this circle?
mHealth – apps and online services designed to enable people to take care of their own health – may be the answer. They combine the use of new technology with patient empowerment. Myhealthapps.net estimates that there are about 97,000 apps on the market serving health conditions or wellbeing – it’s like we all have personal health assistants in our pockets. But what is the overall impact of these tools on healthcare systems? And how do they help shift the current care paradigm to transform patients into actors and decision-makers of health systems?
Benefits across the board
mHealth tools can help everyone to accurately follow a prescription, monitor their blood pressure or check their heart rate. They help people keep an eye on their own health records and access information and advice. Potentially they can be used 24/7, without the patient needing to be physically close to a doctor and in some cases without the user needing health insurance.
Ubiquitous and unlimited access can be particularly useful to manage chronic diseases. The European Commission estimates that EU Member States’ expenditure in this area amounts to around €700 billion yearly – about 70% to 80% of total health care costs. Apps such as MyAsthma mean fewer resources may be needed to care for asthmatic patients, implying fewer trips to the hospital and medical appointments.
Reduced doctor visits can, in turn, free up critical resources to be deployed elsewhere in the health systems, for example to improve access to innovative medicines or invest in improved data infrastructure. PWC estimates that mHealth could potentially save €99 billion in healthcare costs in the EU.
In the UK, the NHS funded a pilot project called WebGP, an online platform allowing for online consultations. Results were impressive: 36,000 visits in six months, with 60% of patients being visited remotely. British doctors saved 400 hours of their own time, freeing up their agendas for needier patients or other activities.
Even more benefits may arise for health systems. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) up to 80% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and over a third of cancers, could be prevented by eliminating risk factors. Wellbeing apps, from yoga courses to diet coaches or assistance in smoke cessation, can offer an affordable and immediately available resource to support the WHO’s current efforts to boost prevention.
Finally, researchers and clinicians can also greatly benefit from apps used to collect large volumes of health data with little cost. Apple’s ResearchKit platform was, for example, used by the Stanford University School of Medicine to develop MyHeart Counts. This app will collect and report users’ personal heart data for research in cardiovascular diseases, the global leading cause for mortality.
To realise the full potential of mHealth, there are still a few challenges to overcome. Despite the enormous potential, mHealth is not a magic wand. Devices can remind us to take a pill or check our blood sugar levels, but they can’t go running, eat a healthier diet or take the pills themselves. If the EU wants patients and citizens to be able to make better decisions and become advocates of their own health, it needs to invest in greater health literacy (I was glad to read a like-minded position in the Latvian Presidency’s priorities).
A second fundamental issue is usability. Citizens and patients need easy-to-use tools to truly unlock their full potential. Involving doctors and experts in app design may be useful in this sense. Finally, we need to enhance trust. People must know their data is safe and understand what they are agreeing to when using these tools.
Policy-makers in Brussels have of course taken a keen interest in the field. The European Commission has published a Green Paper on mHealth, promoting a soft-law approach to support app developers in providing safe, quality tools without restricting the potential impact of mHealth. This seems a sound choice in a field where innovation and developments in technology are happening on a daily basis. Including all the right players in the process – developers, patients, policy-experts, the pharma industry – was the right way to kick off discussions.
Apps are here to e-stay
mHealth has opened the door to exciting possibilities, new approaches and fresh ideas. There is no doubt it is set to become a vital factor in the delivery of and access to health services. With a great emphasis on self-care, mobile health tools shift the perspective from a passive to an active health system, pushing patients to become decision-makers and actors of their own health. mHealth represents the much-discussed ‘patient-centred care’ in action. It is a glimpse of the healthcare paradigm to come, and a challenge to all those involved in healthcare delivery to realise this future.