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Smartphones and Health Care

By May 14, 2010Commentary

The ubiquity of cell phones has changed many aspects of daily life, including health and health care.  Increasingly those phones are “smart”, typically meaning they have web-browsing and other sophisticated information and communication technology capabilities.  The California HealthCare Foundation released a report on the health uses of smartphones by consumers and providers. (CHCF Report)

The report initially notes that by 2009, about 70% of physicians and 42% of consumers had a smartphone.  The rate of use has increased rapidly and, as might be expected, is higher among younger persons.  Minorities tend to have as high or higher use of wireless technology to access the internet.  Higher income and higher education levels are associated with greater use and rural residency with less.  Unfortunately, persons with chronic diseases are also less likely go online or to have broadband access, but are heavy smartphone users.  This creates an opportunity to use smartphones in disease management programs.  It may even be cost-effective for health plans or providers to give patients cell phones for health-related uses and some projects have done that.

The prevalence of these devices has led to a plethora of health-oriented applications.  For consumers, the most popular uses relate to accessing health information.  For clinicians, medication and other medical reference applications are the heaviest use.  Increasingly, however, diagnostic applications are being developed, such as transmission of lab results and imaging scans.   As electronic medical records and personal health records become more widespread, smartphones will be a convenient method for patients and providers to access the information stored in those records.  Remote patient monitoring, primarily in the home, has grown substantially and there are many devices which can collect data.  Smartphones are one method of transmitting the data to a central repository or to providers.

The report identifies several barriers to smartphone use in health care, including a need to demonstrate real value and the need for consistent revenue generation models and streams.  Regulatory issues also exist, primarily at the FDA, which views many smartphone health uses to be medical devices which require some level of regulatory scrutiny.  Privacy is always a concern with electronic communication of sensitive health data.  All in all, the report provides some interesting, if cursory, thoughts on the role of smartphones and wireless technology in health care.

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