As mHealth nears the decade mark, questions about its effect on patient outcomes persist

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There are thousands of mHealth apps, tools and technologies. But do they actually work?

It’s been about 10 years since the word “mHealth” became part of the healthcare lexicon. And since then, the number of mobile technologies, tools and apps has exploded. But has the trend had any impact on outcomes?

Well, it’s hard to say.

“The evidence to support their rapid and widespread use is limited,” writes Amira Roess, Ph.D., in a recent New England Journal of Medicine “Perspectives” piece. Most programs aren’t evaluated in any meaningful way, she adds, noting the scientific literature is dominated by case studies or small-scale pilot studies with “almost no effectiveness studies.”

Still, pilots and other small tests of specific mHealth uses do show promise. For example, there’s evidence that mHealth enhances healthcare workforce training and education and mHealth apps that incorporate decision aids to help community health workers stay current on clinical information and aids health workers in remote settings.

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And these programs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Text4Baby,” once the novel darling of the mHealth crowd, is still going strong, for example.

And new mhealth efforts are being born all the time. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, recently put out a call for health IT developers to test innovative new tools that reduce the rate of childhood obesity among low-income families and advance the use of remote monitoring for prenatal care.

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The trend is also spurred on by consumer demand. The majority of consumers in a recent survey said they're interested in some kind of virtual medical care, particularly following a hospital stay. About 40% of respondents said they want to communicate digitally with their physician and 60% of broadband households said they're interested in remote care options.

Bottom line: Clinicians and others must “demand implementation and evaluation data before recommending an mHealth intervention,” Roess, an assistant professor at the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University, concludes, “lest we arrive in an increasingly fragmented mHealth landscape littered with poor-quality, unproven apps.”