For mHealth to succeed, we'll need standards

Do you FitBit? It’s a question that’s on the lips of millions of consumers, given that the device manufacturer captured a whopping 67 percent of total wearable fitness trackers sold in 2013. Once the domain of limited-functionality products like hearing aids and traditional pedometers that merely counted steps and mileage, the mobile health devices market is maturing and transforming into a much more sophisticated, feature-rich environment.

There are now commercially available consumer applications that can turn a smartphone into a thermometer, pulse oximeter, blood pressure monitor, glucose meter and more. Then there’s the clinical mHealth market – projected to surge past the consumer mHealth market to reach a high of $16B by 2023 – with its array of mobile ultrasounds, virus and nano-particle imagers, blood analyzers and other clinical functionalities. Opportunities for development and adoption of new labor-, time- and money-saving mHealth devices is virtually unlimited, but the challenges posed by integrating new mHealth technologies into a busy clinical practice can be daunting, and even become a barrier to adoption.

Is mHealth a cure worse than the disease?

mHealth technologies offer a bounty of benefits and advantages, including improved monitoring, faster diagnostics, greater flexibility and measurable cost-savings, for physicians and patients alike. However, with great promise also come great challenges, particularly for healthcare organizations and clinical practices. What’s the best way to work these new devices and applications into an organization’s daily workflow? How much is too much when it comes to data? And how should that information be safeguarded to prevent costly security breaches or HIPAA violations? What happens when mHealth devices aren’t interoperable with either one another or network infrastructures?

These are only a few of the urgent questions that the mHealth ecosystem must address if technology innovation and adoption is to continue, yet there are no simple answers. Take the question of cost; mHealth devices have ancillary costs beyond just the purchase price that must be taken into account – training, integration, operation and security, for example. One factor that can cause these costs to spiral is a lack of interoperability between mHealth devices. Many times, integrating mHealth technologies into an existing network means implementing a patchwork solution that cobbles disparate hardware and software together into something that mostly works. Or it might require considerable manual intervention to ensure the system functions adequately in an environment where devices can’t communicate with each other. Neither circumstance is optimal in situations where the quality of patient care is on the line.

Data accuracy, privacy and security represent additional hurdles that can stymie mHealth technology adoption. Is essential information being captured and recorded correctly? Who can or should be able to access sensitive medical data? How secure is the data transfer process between the device and the network?

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