Sebelius: Let's keep mobile health safe, secure, American

By Brian Dolan

sebelius“We are talking about taking the biggest technology breakthrough of our time and using it to address our greatest national challenge,” Kathleen Sebelius U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said during her keynote presentation at the mHealth Summit in Washington DC this morning. Sebelius envisioned a “remarkable future” where control over a patient’s own health was always within their control. She listed off a number of potential use cases for mobile health, including remote diagnosis of skin conditions using smartphone cameras; scheduling lab tests without a physician or medical office staff “lifting one finger”; working with your doctor to manage your own health every day instead of just once a year, she said.

Sebelius said that few industries have grown as quickly as mobile health has in the past two years since the first mHealth Summit in 2009, which Sebelius also keynoted. Sebelius noted the rapid growth of smartphones – more than half of all phones sold in the US this past year were smartphones – and that we are “increasingly” using our phones to track and manage our health.

Recent survey data published by Pew might throw a little cold water on that last statement: Pew found statistically insignificant growth for health app adoption among those surveyed for its 2010 and 2011 reports.

Sebelius also noted that there are “nearly 12,000 apps related to health” currently available in app store, and that’s a number “that is probably going up as I speak this morning,” she said. (This is true – dozens of health-related apps launch each week.)

Mobile technology has improved the consumer experience for almost every part of our lives, Sebelius noted, but healthcare has been until recently a notable exception. Sebelius said that healthcare has “stubbornly held on” to its old ways while other service industries like banking have embraced mobile.

Part of the problem facing healthcare in this country today is a lack of information, Sebelius said, since patients often have little access to their own healthcare information, which is often stored out of sight in a hospital, doctor’s office, or pharmacy database. Even basic information like the side effects of particular medications can be hard to access. Physicians also often have too little information about their patients and whether they just came out of the emergency room or have had difficulty managing their diabetes, Sebelius said.

Sebelius point to the Obama Administration’s “historic” effort to speed up adoption of electronic health records as a first step toward solving those types of problems around accessibility and connectivity of health information.

“Mobile health is a natural extension of this trend,” Sebelius said. “It is bringing this health information from computers to pockets and purses and the advantage of mobile health is that it is always with us.” Sebelius also said that mobile health is also a channel to reach African Americans, Latino Americans, and “too many young people.”

Sebelius noted that the free, SMS-based Text4Baby service, which provides information to young expectant mothers each week, now has 250,000 users. The HHS Text4Health Taskforce is also prepping a launch for SmokeFreeTXT, a similarly SMS-based, smoking cessation service.

While Sebelius conceded that mobile health tools are often “empowering” for consumers and can help them manage their own health, there are some aspects of healthcare that consumers should be “happy” and “wise” to leave to medical professionals – like open heart surgery, she quipped. There are other health-related tasks that we should want to be involved in are eating healthy diets, choosing our doctors, or managing our chronic diseases – three use cases where mobile health is key.

Sebelius highlighted Healthagen’s app, iTriage, which she said “helps make finding a local healthcare facility as easy to find as a lunch spot.” She also pointed to “Pillbox” and app that makes it easier to find medication information.

Mobile health is not just for patients, Sebelius said, as technologies “built for consumers” (smartphone and tablets) loaded with apps like Epocrates are finding their way into lab coats. These are becoming “almost as required” for practice as a stethoscope is.

Despite the positive trend, Sebelius said that “everyone in this room would acknowledge that we have a long way to go.

Sebelius closed her talk with a handful of challenges for those in the room. Her first challenge: Those working in mobile health should encourage any change that empowers patients and encourages providers to work more closely together since that kind of change will encourage demand for mobile health products. Sebelius said that mobile-focused companies should “be supportive of all technologies” that could drive that kind of change. “If you want mobile technologies to succeed, help us move to a patient-centered healthcare system that would enable those technologies to make the biggest impact.”

Her second challenge was for those working on mobile health to work with the FDA to develop regulations that ensure the safety of mobile health services. She also pushed those in the room to work toward creating mobile health services that protect the privacy of personal health information. Sebelius said that a large share of privacy violations come from mobile devices with unencrypted health data on them being lost. Her final challenge was to make the United States the world leader in developing mobile health technologies.

Countries like China and India are growing rapidly and it is not a question of “if” but from “where” will those countries buy mobile health technologies, Sebelius said. “There’s no reason” that shouldn’t be the USA, she said.

MobiHealthNews' coverage of the mHealth Summit 2011 is sponsored by Preventice.