Pew's Susannah Fox: Mobile health is at a crossroads

By Neil Versel
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Susannah FoxIf, as many have said, we are truly in the midst of a mobile health revolution, it's still in the early stages.

Although 85 percent of adults in the U.S. have a cell phone, just 9 percent of that group have downloaded apps to help them track or manage health conditions. That's the word from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which just published a report called “The Social Life of Health Information 2011,” with funding from the California HealthCare Foundation.

"What I'm seeing is a lot of potential in that there are a lot of people who could use these apps, but that uptake is pretty low," says the author of that report, Pew Internet Associate Director Susannah Fox, a leader in the field of consumer empowerment in healthcare.

Where consumers seem to be taking more interest in their care is on the Internet, mobile and otherwise.

"The Internet has changed people’s relationships with information. Our data consistently show that doctors, nurses, and other health professionals continue to be the first choice for most people with health concerns, but online resources, including advice from peers, are a significant source of health information in the U.S.," the Pew report says.

"Right now, there are countless online communities made of real-live patients and caretakers sharing advice, support and accurate, helpful information about healthcare," Fox wrote in a newsletter published by Kaiser Permanente. "They help each other quit smoking or sleep better; they post gluten-free cooking recipes; they offer tips on managing chemo’s side effects; and they share new pharmaceutical advancements. And, with mobile Internet access exploding in the last few years, these conversations are often happening in real-time—in the grocery store, at work, at home, and everywhere in between."

Pew found that 27 percent of American Internet users have tracked their own health, diet or fitness online, though those with wireless Internet access are more likely than those with only wired connections to do so. (Wireless Internet users included those who were on laptops as well as tablets and smartphones.)

Interestingly, the survey of 3,000 adults found that 15 percent of African-Americans have a mobile health app on a phone, compared to 11 percent of Hispanics and just 7 percent of those who call themselves white. Fox, for one, was not shocked. "The online African-American population is younger than the general African-American population," she tells MobiHealthNews. The same is true about Hispanics, based on earlier Pew polls.

"I wasn't surprised because we had done some groundwork," Fox says.

Indeed, the most likely users of mobile health apps are urban-dwelling, African-American college graduates under the age of 30, the survey indicated. However, another conundrum is at work here. Fox points out that other studies has shown that young people are less likely than older adults to be concerned about their health.

Fox reports hearing from public-health professionals that money may be better spent on developing the mobile Web rather than on apps. "We need to do some more analysis about the data," she admits, but calls this new study " a signpost for future research."

Her job is to analyze data, so she avoids making predictions. "That's what the data says to me, that we're at a crossroads," Fox says.

The same could easily be said for the mobile health industry.

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