Mobile health is more evolution than revolution

By Neil Versel
09:27 am

Neil VerselLast week, online “knowledge forum” Big Think interviewed UCLA engineering professor Aydogan Ozacan of the school’s California NanoSystems Institute in touting the “coming wireless health revolution.” The institute is trying to shrink an optical microscope so it can be attached to a cell phone to help identify infectious diseases in remote and underserved parts of the world. That sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

Then, this week, the VentureBeat blog mentioned “the mobile health revolution” in a story provocatively headlined, “Can your smartphone save your life?” That story covered such developments as wearable wireless sensors and the pilot test in Egypt of the Great Connection Mobile Baby service that sends ultrasound images to patients’ smartphones. That’s also some pretty cool stuff with the potential to be revolutionary.

Sometimes, though, we throw around the word “revolution” a little too haphazardly.

The week before last, I spoke to faculty, residents and students at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. It was the fourth time in the past year I’d been asked to give a talk on mobile and wireless healthcare.

Back in September, I spoke to the mHealth Initiative’s 2nd International mHealth Networking Conference on the topic of, “Evolution of the Revolution.” In that presentation, I noted that a Google search of “mhealth revolution” returned 418,000 results. (As I said this month at Meharry, It’s since dropped to about 390,000 results, but I have a feeling that’s because Google has tweaked its search algorithm to filter out a lot of junk.)

If that many posts on the Internet indicate there’s a revolution brewing, it must make it so, right? Well, maybe.

In my presentation, I like to point to a story I wrote in early 2002 about Dr. Lloyd Hey, then a spine surgeon at Duke University who founded a company called MDeverywhere that produced “encounter capture” software for Palm PDAs so physicians could code patient visits at the point of care. Hey talked of his struggles in the mid-1990s to find a mobile device that could read bar codes in order to verify patient information and physician orders prior to surgery. Then, in 1997, the PalmPilot debuted. Five years later, Hey told me, “The technology has finally evolved.”

Yes, the technology had evolved to a monochrome screen that required a stylus and only connected to other computers if it was physically docked with a PC or within unobstructed range of the infrared sensor on another handheld device.

It was about that time, nine years ago, that a company called Handspring—soon to be acquired by Palm—came out with the Treo, one of the first widely available smartphones. 2002 also was the year Research in Motion introduced its first BlackBerry smartphone and, if my memory serves, when Microsoft’s healthcare people first showed me a beta version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

If only we had known what smartphones and tablets would look like today. Apple blew the doors open for mobile health in 2007 with the truly revolutionary iPhone and, in 2010, the equally groundbreaking iPad. While those early Windows tablets were fully functioning computers—essentially laptops with handwriting recognition and a swiveling keyboard—they were expensive and had maybe a quarter the battery life of a modern touch-screen tablet. But they represented a good start. Or, as one might say, an evolutionary step of a journey that continues today.

It’s an evolution more than a revolution.


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