You say mobile, I say wireless, but it doesn't really matter

By Neil Versel

Neil_Versel_LargeIt's come up again.

"I am studying the wireless healthcare market and wanted to understand if there is any difference between wireless healthcare and mobile healthcare (m-health) market," reads the question on the popular LinkedIn Wireless Health group's message board.

Some of the responses are expected, others are, shall we say, interesting:

  • "Generally, m-health uses mobile cellular technology, typically in an outpatient setting. Wireless healthcare can include both ambulatory (outpatient, home care, etc.) using mobile cellular technology as well as RF and Wi-Fi in hospital settings."
  • "I expect that most m-health market research looks [at] mobile phones and smartphones using cellular, or cellular-like technologies… but that last bit can get tricky. Even if a mobile phone device and mobile phone app is connected to remote services over Wi-Fi at Starbucks or at home through a picocell due to poor cellular coverage, I would think the device and app would be counted under 'mHealth.'
    But what if it's a tablet or ultrabook connected over a cellular network (or Wi-Fi at home or in a hotspot)?  And what if the apps are optimized for a PC or tablet and not a phone? Isn't the device still mobile? But does that mean it's counted by market researchers as m-health? I think opinions may differ.
    Next, consider wireless connections between sensor devices using short-distance and low-power wireless technologies like ANT+, Bluetooth, ZigBee or Z-Wave. Does that wireless connected blood pressure cuff, arm band or body monitor patch count as m-health? I think market researchers would instead categorize those as 'wireless health' products."
  • "M-health is a expertise domain definition. While wireless healthcare represetns a medium for sending and receiving data, wireless technology basically uses radio (and sometimes light – infrared) spectrum to move data. In designing a specific mHealth system, various wireless technologies should be considered to fit the purpose. Each technology provides a different set of capabilities, the single common feature being the ability to share data wirelessly."
  • "Telehealth is often not mobile but Internet-based (connecting a patient with a physician using technology). I would go with the following: Wireless health -- any situation where a patient connects with their health management using wireless technology (phone, Internet, etc.). M-health -- any situation where a patient connects with their health management using a mobile device such as a tablet or mobile phone.
  • "Wireless is trending towards shorter distances, which decreases transmit power, increases battery life, improves security, and increases bandwidth performance, often dramatically.

Confused? Yeah, so am I. For the record, I use the following definition when I make public presentations about mobile healthcare, as I will Thursday at the Telehealth Alliance of Oregon's annual meeting in Portland: Mobile health is an enabling technology that's part of a personalized, wireless future.

That didn't help, did it? Mobile phones and cellular devices are wireless, and those terms get used interchangeably in the U.S. But say "wireless phone" to a European, and that will conjure up thoughts of a "cordless" phone connected to a landline. The handheld devices everybody carries with them are called mobiles, not cell phones.

So, what's the point of all this? Perhaps mobile health and wireless health are fast becoming antiquated terms? "Connected health" is one phrase I've heard bandied about.

Or perhaps they are still relevant phrases. A laptop ("un portable" in French, for what it's worth) is a portable device that you can take with you, but it's not exactly mobile. I suppose you could attach a cellular modem and turn it into a mobile device, but you wouldn't want to carry it very far with the screen open and the power on. A tablet is a mobile device. It's designed to be used while on the go.

Similarly, a Wi-Fi router or ZigBee base station is wireless, but not mobile. However, a personal hot spot, sometimes called Mi-Fi device, can make an 802.11 wireless signal mobile, and an ANT+ fitness network can be mobile, too, when attached to a runner, cyclist or skier.

Still confused? Me too. An accredited standards body could come up with a formal definition of mobile health or wireless health or connected health to remove some of the ambiguity, but is that really necessary? Eventually, the lines are going to blur or the healthcare and personal health/fitness markets – two distinct things – are going to separate as technologies and consumers mature. For now, let's embrace the confusion. It's better than arguing, right?