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  • Writer's pictureAaron Neinstein

mHealth is “so hot right now”… Ten themes from the 2012 mHealth Summit

To quote Mugatu, Will Farrell’s character in Zoolander, mHealth is “so hot right now.”  In this spirit, nearly 4,000 people came together for the past several days outside of Washington DC for the 2012 mHealth Summit organized by mHIMSS.

For anyone who was sitting at home and playing buzzword bingo during the conference, here are the words that would have comprised the winning row: interoperability, gamification, wellness, big data, social, consumer, adherence, re-admission.

My Top Ten Takeaways From the 2012 mHealth Summit

1) mHealth adoption will be consumer-driven.

At this point, I think few people question this.

2) User interface and user experience are lacking.

Because of point 1 above, user experience and user interface are critical.  For something to have durability (or “stickiness”) with consumers, it is going to have to be simple, engaging, intuitive, and heck, maybe even delightful.  Most of the current crop of products has work to do here.  One up-and-comer in the StartUp Health class that I really enjoyed seeing was designed by a RISD graduate and is called Thryve.  I have also yet to see a person interact with the ECG-in-an-iPhone-case, AliveCor, and not get excited.  More products need to generate these enthusiastic reactions.

3) We need to use mHealth to solve real problems, and do so in thoughtful ways.

Sometimes the trouble with an mHealth app is simply that it wasn’t designed based on a real clinical problem or need.  No amount of snazzy UI can fix this.  I was encouraged to meet many very intelligent and thoughtful people at the conference who are working hard on big problems and using rigorous, scientific approaches, for example and the team at University of Toronto, among many others.

4) Business models are still being worked-out.

There are still not a lot of success stories to guide the industry and everyone seems to be feeling their way around in the dark.

5) Corporate wellness is “so hot right now.”

One of the proposed business models that seems to be popular is to market a product to large employers as a method for improving employee wellness.

6) Scott Peterson (Verizon): “We cannot allow walls around data to continue.”  We need real interoperability.  

Although the term “interoperability” falls into the “so hot right now” category, this often seems to mean, “I want everyone else to interoperate with me.”  I participated with Open mHealth at the conference, who is trying to foster a community towards the goal of true interoperability.  Open mHealth recognizes that patients should be the ones to control access to their own data.  I hope the rest of the industry catches up to this idea.

7) Physicians need to change.  Now.

Vinod Khosla famously and provocatively predicts that “80% of the work that physicians do today can be done in the future by computers.”  Everyone can waste their time arguing the details, but would be better off realizing that the spirit of this comment is accurate, and instead focus on how to facilitate and shape this transition.  This does not mean that 80% of doctors will not be needed.  It means that what we do will change.  Big data, analytics, and artificial intelligence will be able to do many tasks better than physicians.  I, for one, am happy about this… I believe that these tools, when built properly, will make me a far more effective and efficient physician.  My colleague at UCSF, Dr. Seth Bokser, told me that he focuses training his pediatric residents on empathy and decision-analytic skills, worrying less about rote memorization and knowledge.  He’s right, and medical education should reinforce this.

8) Research techniques are needed that better fit mHealth.

There was an excellent panel at the conference where this was discussed by Dr. Joe Caffazzo from the University of Toronto and Dr. Bonnie Spring from Northwestern.  The general consensus was that traditional randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are too slow and too expensive, and that by the time they are completed, the technology they are studying may often be obsolete (Dr. Spring gave the example of a recently-completed RCT using a Palm Pilot!).  Usability testing and other qualitative methods are important for building a good, user-centered product, but may not provide high-quality evidence for clinical effectiveness.  Newer models are needed.

9) Despite being a buzzword, “wellness” actually is important. 

The current healthcare paradigm focuses too much on treatment of end-stage diseases.  In so many cases today, these diseases are all linked by stemming from the milieu of obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation… heart attacks, strokes, sleep apnea, diabetes, kidney disease…  I think that “wellness” as a buzzword grates on people when it is used in the context of the “worried well” obsessing over minor details.  But as a US and world population, where the above health problems are becoming overwhelmingly expensive, we really do need to figure out (and soon!) how to promote healthy eating, exercise, and other good lifestyle choices for those who are not yet on board.

10) Take the stairs.

There was a lot of high-tech, whizz-bang, cutting-edge stuff on display at the conference.  And yet every time I looked, at least 90% of the people seemed to be taking the escalators instead of the stairs between conference sessions (reminding me of the below photo).  If the 4,000 people in the US who are the most gamified, FitBit’ed, and social networked won’t take the stairs, we must still have our work cut out for us.


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