Fiscal, demographic realities make mHealth key to reducing care costs

While the presidential election season is over (thankfully), the issue of healthcare reform is not going away and remains a critical challenge for our nation. This year, U.S. healthcare expenditures will total a staggering $2.8 trillion--the equivalent of the world's fifth largest economy--and are estimated to reach $3.5 trillion by 2016.

Cutting healthcare costs is imperative if America is to get a handle on its tremendous debt and out-of-control healthcare spending which currently stands at 17.9 percent of gross domestic product. Unless significant reforms are put in place, we will continue to see spiraling healthcare costs.

There are many weapons in the healthcare reform arsenal, not the least of which is the adoption of mobile health applications and technologies that could significantly lower healthcare costs. While only a relatively modest amount of money is spent in this country on preventive medicine and health education, about 70 percent of healthcare funds are spent on chronic disease.

Perhaps mHealth's greatest potential for reducing the explosion of U.S. healthcare costs is driving down expenditures on preventable diseases from health risks associated with lifestyle choices, such as diet, obesity, and smoking. By focusing on changing those behaviors with fitness, wellness and healthcare apps, mHealth can serve as a powerful medium in collecting and disseminating information in the fight against the onset of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Our aging population and the corresponding rise in costs of healthcare services is also a serious issue. Medicare in 2012 provided coverage to 50.7 million seniors. By 2030, the number of people covered by Medicare will soar to about 78 million with baby boomers entering retirement age.

Mobile healthcare can allow seniors to live independently and spend more time at home, while reducing the costs of elderly medical care as fewer face to-face consultations are needed. An April 2012 study conducted by The Boston Consulting Group and Telenor Group looked at the socio-economic impact of mHealth initiatives in 12 countries. Among the report's findings: costs in elderly care can be reduced by 25 percent.

In addition, the report found that costs related to data collection can be reduced by 24 percent with mHealth. "If mobile phones can be tools for remote diagnostics, they also allow patients and healthcare providers to access health records remotely, speeding up processes, avoiding duplication, and saving between 20 and 30 percent in administrative costs," the report's authors wrote.

However, as Willa Fields, Chair of the HIMSS Board of Directors, testified at a Nov. 14 House Technology and Innovation Subcommittee hearing, a number of barriers prevent the adoption of mobile devices as a solution to emerging healthcare problems, including a complex regulatory environment, limited incentives to adopt, provider reimbursement issues, and privacy and security concerns.

Until we overcome these obstacles to implementing mHealth, reducing our country's healthcare costs will remain an elusive goal. - Greg