mHealth Summit: HHS sees enormous potential

By Brian Dolan
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Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsA year ago most discussions about wireless health centered on VoIP handsets for healthcare workers, distributed antenna systems or real-time tracking systems for hospital equipment -- it was an IT industry focused on infrastructure and the health industry as enterprise.

A lot has changed in the past year. Today marks a true watershed -- Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services delivered a keynote at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mHealth Summit in Washington D.C., that squarely focused on the "enormous" promise that wireless health holds for improving healthcare and empowering patients in the U.S. Her keynote wasn't a vague lauding of an emerging industry either -- (I must admit, that's what I expected.) Instead, Sebelius, the head of our country's healthcare programs and a member of the President's Cabinet, seems to truly understand the impact wireless health will have in the years ahead:

"How we empower consumers and put patients back into the mix so that they become, not only responsible for their own health, but also so that they have an opportunity to monitor and participate in their own health interests. I think that there is no question that mobile technology, as discussed at this conference, is a part of that puzzle," Sebelius said. "Mobile has huge advantages, including the fact that everybody has [a mobile phone]. Unfortunately, I have two. Some 90 percent of Americans have one so a [wireless health] system could be put in place that could touch just about everyone."

"Some people dont go to websites... or watch TV, but that phone is with them all the time," Sebelius said. The mobile has "so much power to empower consumers and compel us to a healthcare system of the future."

Sebelius gave a few examples of physicians and healthcare groups that are already leveraging mobile devices and wireless networks to provide better care for their patients. She said that one doctor in Texas already sends test results via text message and reminds people about their care regimens through their mobile phones, too. Another healthcare group in Florida is using text messaging to alert patients about the waiting times at the nearest emergency rooms, Sebelius said. A number of care providers are looking to mobile to offer appointment reminder services, too, she said.

"While the technology is clearly still in its early stages, we can already begin to imagine where mobile phones fit into" our healthcare system, Sebelius said. You can imagine "Americans taking pictures or videos of their symptoms and [using that to] have much more robust conversations with their doctors," Sebelius said. "We are encouraging them to do that with their doctors now with the flu -- to research their symptoms and bring that information to their doctors."

Sebelius noted that the government is in the middle of a "historic multi billion investment in electronic health records as part of the government's recovery plan... clearly [wireless] technology can help inform that new system. The introduction of mobile technology to this move towad EHRs for all Americans is a huge tool in the toolkit, which will allow us to drive better care and better outcomes."

"What we know is that for the generation that is under 40 years old, mobile is an extraordinarily good way to reach younger people and get messages across," Sebelius said. The government is currently working on a couple of wireless health projects including an HIV testing information text messaging program, an H1N1 update text messaging feed, and the Text4Baby program, which we have written about extensively here.) Sebelius also announced that the Text4Baby program included previously undisclosed partners CTIA and Johnson & Johnson.

"President Obama and we at the HHS very strongly believe that this is the wave of the future," Sebelius said.

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