Health leaders and medical directors emphasize the need to include information and communication technologies (ICT) in formal healthcare programs considering their potential advantages. However, can healthcare professionals advice mHealth to their patients and are they ready to do so?
Today there are more than 2 billion smartphones’ users globally. By 2020, it is expected that this number will be multiplied by 3, reaching more than 6 billion smartphone users. In relation to this, the eHealth sector is experiencing double-digit annual growth and the number of tools and apps is continuously increasing.
A report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics has shown that more than 165.000 mHealth apps are now available in the market; more than doubling over the past two years. A high percentage of these apps are focused on healthy lifestyles offering a very attractive offer with different activities and incentives aimed at catching people’s attention (see Figure 1).
Physical activity, healthy diet and stress management are star products among this huge offer of apps.
The World Health Organization discusses the benefits of using ICT in healthcare settings in terms of better access to information, improved communication between colleagues and patients with health providers, facilitating continuing professional development and providing learning tools for healthcare professionals, patients and the community as a whole.
Despite the evidence of the increasingly important role of ICT in healthcare, its use is not widely and homogeneously spread across different countries and healthcare settings. In general, countries differ in their market and social policies (and economies!) readiness for mHealth. In the market readiness criteria (e.g. smartphone penetration, tablet penetration, share of GPs using e-Prescription) the best performing countries often offer more than twice as good market conditions compared to the countries with low rankings. This is important because that means that the decision to prescribe an app is not only a personal bet of a healthcare provider but something that should be regulated, controlled and this must satisfy quality and appropriateness criteria too.
There are already some applications implement in healthcare settings based on mHealth, for instance:
- SMS alerts to remind patients to take their prescription drugs
- Remote diagnosis and treatment for patients who do not have easy access to health professionals
- Remote health monitoring devices that track and report patients’ conditions
mHealth could prove a major step change opportunity in improving the quality of care and lifestyle of patients suffering from chronic diseases or other conditions, while reducing the cost of care delivery. However, not all professionals feel confident advising to use or prescribing mHealth apps to their patients. Instead, they still use general recommendations that, in most cases, have shown low rates of adherence among patients.
In brief, before witnessing a general acceptance and massive use of mHealth across different countries and healthcare settings, several challenges must be overcome:
- To enable global usability of mHealth services with transparency.
- To develop a secure, trusted service that patients will use.
- To develop a clear understanding of the role operators wish to play in the mobile healthcare value chain.
- To tailor the mHealth business model to local situations and regulations since not all the countries have similar socio-economic conditions.
- To work with the governments and regulators to provide “mHealth friendly regulatory environments” and eliminate concerns about data privacy and confidentiality obligations.
- To demonstrate the ways that mHealth can be integrated into the existing healthcare workflow.
- To include the expertise of all agents involved in the design, implementation and use of mHealth solutions to leverage its potentialities.
- To provide efficacy and cost-benefit studies on mHealth solutions.
- To develop business models to show clear benefits to healthcare organisations in introducing mHealth solutions.
All these challenges can be effectively managed through careful planning and design. Ultimately, mHealth is only effective if adopted by healthcare professionals and patients. Thus, developers and providers must therefore be focused on developing products and services that are easy to use, without additional layers of complexity. Moreover, design and solid theoretical frameworks to build the solution are key elements. Only by ensuring the attractiveness and soundness of the service, we will increase the odds of adherence and usage.