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How Mobile Health Is Addressing Population Health Challenges

By Patricia Chaney January 22, 2016 Posted in: Your Practice , Article

Throughout the health care industry, medical organizations are looking for ways to manage population health. As a physician, you may often consider how you can address the chronic health problems that are prevalent in your community. Mobile health technologies may offer some assistance in achieving this objective, but you need to fully understand the options if you want to use these phone-based tools to improve outcomes for your patients.

Types of Mobile Health Apps

Mobile phone applications in health care aren't new, but they are rapidly gaining momentum, especially because the Affordable Care Act is pushing practices toward population health management and performance-based payment models. There are a wide variety of apps available that serve different purposes, so it's important to understand what these technologies can do.

Some apps aim to educate patients their health. Users may be able to diagnose potential problems based on their symptoms, learn more about a particular disease, or get tips on how to recover from a procedure. These apps are not only useful for patients, but for caregivers as well -- Dignity Health partnered with AirStrip ONE, for example, to develop tools that allow caregivers to remotely monitor individuals with chronic conditions.

These tools can also help doctors and researchers gather health data. For example, many people use wearable fitness trackers to log their physical activity or track their eating habits with an app. This type of app can provide physicians with key information about their patients' lifestyles. However, there's been little research to date about their effectiveness in reducing an individual's or population's risk of chronic disease.

Other apps that may provide value to physicians are those related to specific health problems or medication safety. One study from the American Society of Nephrology tested a mobile tool for patients with chronic kidney disease. The goal of the app is to help patients determine if over-the-counter medicines or other prescriptions were safe to take with their condition. The participants said the app was easy to use, and the results showed only a 5 percent error rate, which the researchers viewed as promising.

Benefits of Mobile Health

These mobile health technologies may help you and your practice in a number of ways. You can recommend apps to patients as a way to understand discharge instructions, remember to take medications on time, or figure out what post-operation symptoms are normal. With so many people on their phones regularly, it may also be easier to get patients to provide you with information about their lifestyle or habits if they can input it with their phones. Finally, you may have already found that you get better response rates when you communicate with patients through secure, industry-approved messaging apps.

Perhaps one of the most important large-scale uses of mobile health technology is to collect data for research. Clinical trials are costly and time-consuming, and they often only represent a small segment of the population. When collecting data from mobile apps, however, researchers can get real-time information from patients with chronic conditions, such as asthma or diabetes.

This year, for instance, Apple released its ResearchKit platform. The tool can be used by providers, research centers, hospitals, and other medical organizations to better understand patients. The platform has apps for five diseases so far -- asthma, Parkinson's, diabetes, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease -- and many studies are already underway at academic medical centers.

Challenges and Limitations

Mobile health faces the same challenges that the industry has seen during the adoption of other medical technologies: interoperability, scalability, and engagement.

For research purposes, data can go into a large bank to be extracted and analyzed. But for everyday physicians, it's more beneficial to store your patients' information in their electronic records, and this requires a certain degree of interoperability. Some apps, like AirStrip, emphasize interoperability, so it's possible to move information from the app to electronic records in some cases. Other popular apps may not be compatible with your record system, though.

Scalability is another issue. Data and results are still fairly scattered, which makes it tough to scale up the research studies or promote the widespread, standardized use of mobile tools. There are also a lot of apps to sort through when determining which ones might work best for your patients. As popularity and usage increase, there will only be more market saturation.

Finally, if your patients don't use the tools regularly, they won't experience the full benefits. If you've implemented a patient portal, it's possible you've struggled with engagement already. However, you can likely use similar strategies to boost engagement rates with mobile apps as you did when getting patients to use an online portal.

Mobile tools can't and won't replace quality physician-patient relationships. But mobile tools allow you to develop a partnership with your patients, and when used efficiently, they can provide both you and your patients with the information needed to promote better health and improve outcomes.

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