Smartphones, tablets seen boosting mobile health

The spread of wireless Internet devices could shake up mobile health care

Smartphones, tablet PCs and other wireless devices are poised to play a greater role in health care as doctors and patients embrace the mobile Internet, panelists at a mobile health technology conference in Boston said Thursday.

A study from Manhattan Research found that 71 percent of physicians consider a smartphone essential to their practice and 84 percent said that the Internet is critical to their jobs.

"Physicians are opportunistic in finding ways to improve efficiency," said Monique Levy, a senior director with Manhattan Research. Smartphones allow doctors to check e-mail, use mobile applications and surf the Web, and also lead to collaboration between physicians and patients, she said at the World Congress' Summit on mHealth.

Doctors can use a device like a tablet to pull up patient information during a consultation, then use it to show a patient how disease spreads or how curvature of the spine occurs. It may be easier to share information with patients in this way than sitting in front of a PC.

The use of mobile devices in health care has expanded in the past five years and will continue to grow as U.S. smartphone use increases, said Harry Wang, director of mobile and health research at Park Associates. By 2015 more than 70 percent of people in the U.S. will own a smartphone, according to a study by his firm.

Smartphones and health care intersect today in the area of applications, he said. His company's research found that the most commonly used mobile health applications are for fitness and workout programs, nutrition and gathering health news.

Future developments could allow patients to use their iPhones as glucose monitors, for example, he said. In fact, some hospitals are experimenting with such applications already.

People with sleeping disorders could use a wireless device to monitor their sleep patterns and transmit data to their doctors over a wireless LAN. This would lead to health care savings since labs often charge US$1,200 for testing, and some home monitoring options cost $300, Wang said.

Using mobile technologies for critical care is still a developing market, however, Wang added.

Some obstacles need to be addressed before wireless health care moves forward, Wang said. He cited a lack of standards, the need for more safety regulations and the need for more marketing to both doctors and patients. The greatest challenge will be aligning the interests of stakeholders like health care providers, patients and hospitals, he said.

During a question-and-answer session, an attendee asked if wireless carriers can provide adequate bandwidth to make mobile health effective.

Levy said that while wireless health could involve a patient using a smartphone to hold a video conference with a nurse, consumers have demonstrated that they use technology for more basic health care needs.

"I don't think bandwidth will be a limiting factor," she said. "The Internet didn't revolutionize the way people take care of themselves. They use the Internet to look up information."

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