The potential of mobile healthcare has been well documented, but the growth may be coming from some unexpected quarters.
It's not only highly industrialized countries that are feeling the effects of aging populations and chronic diseases and it's not just sick people who are looking to mobility to improve health conditions, according to a newly published GigaOM Pro report, "Future of Mobile Health 2011-2016."
McKinsey & Co. said in 2010 that the global market for mobile health was worth about $50 billion, with $20 billion of that in the U.S. alone. ABI Research estimated that sales of wearable wireless devices would top 100 million units per year by 2016. GigaOM cites those findings, but attempts to explain why.
As a recent United Nations meeting on non-communicable diseases demonstrated, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are cropping up all over the world. "The fastest-growing middle class in the world is in Africa," the GigaOM Pro report's author, Jody Ranck, tells MobiHealthNews. Similarly, upward mobility is leading to unhealthy lifestyle changes in India, the Middle East and Latin America, Ranck says, and that is putting strain on limited health resources.
Mobile and wireless technology can help, particularly as the cost of wearable and implantable sensors declines. "The creative use of sensors, mapping and mobiles could change the way we think about the very nature of health itself," according to the report.
"Telemedicine and mobile health hold the promise of providing more affordable ways to manage treatment of chronic conditions, facilitate business models for the medical home and offer substantial cost savings from improving drug adherence and monitoring vital signs. This can reduce rehospitalizations—a major source of expenditures in the health system," the report states.
"Similarly, Body Area Networks (BAN) enable remote monitoring of patients. The hope here is to reduce the costs of care associated with rehospitalizations, enhance access to care and improve drug adherence by monitoring patient behaviors."
Remote monitoring isn't just confined to rich countries. Ranck notes that the Carlos Slim Health Institute is supporting use of the technology in Mexico.
In the West, the market for mobile health goes well beyond the sick to include people interested in health, wellness and fitness. But don't write off the rest of the world, either, in looking at the potential of fitness and gaming-related apps, Ranck says.
So far, though, there hasn't been much widespread success with attempts to alter unhealthy behaviors, as evidenced by the difficulty health plans have had with disease management programs. "The way the health system looks at behavioral change is epistemologically stuck in the 1950s," Ranck says. And those who pay for disease management, typically employers, have become "jaded" because of the limited results.
Gaming apps might—might change the paradigm. "While there is a great deal of interest and certainly hype in the gamification of the health genre, the game changer, so to speak, will have to come from the rigorous evaluation of outcomes," Ranck cautioned.
The potential of regulation of mobile apps is on a lot of people's minds, too. Ranck believes more and more apps will fall under Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction in the U.S. as functionality improves, based on a draft guidance document circulated in July. There won't be much need for regulation in global health in the near term, since, according to the report, most applications in the developing world are SMS-based.