Make sure your hospital's mHealth strategy is deliberate

There were more questions than answers for hospital CIOs at the World Congress Leadership Summit on mHealth in Boston last week. It shouldn't be a surprise, given the rapid rise of mobile development in the past year. The truth is, there hasn't been enough time to create hard-and-fast solutions for the key dilemmas plaguing mHealth.

Still, there was some exciting new information flowing around. Here's some of what I found most intriguing:

Slow down and be careful with your internal app development. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's new guidance indicates that even your own in-house apps could be regulated in the not too distant future. So while it might be tempting to just plow ahead with that new clinical app, your path to market could be compromised if you don't start off on the right foot. The FDA requires documentation of all phases of a medical device's (and in this case, a mobile medical app's) development, experts tell us, and that means from the idea stage forward. It can be difficult to reconfigure the process later.

Worried you'll get left behind if you don't jump on the mobile bandwagon? Consider this: Reps from healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente admitted at the Summit they don't have any real mobile strategy to speak of yet, let alone any apps to give their members. That doesn't mean you should slow to snail's pace, but it does mean that the industry's perception of a runaway healthcare app market might be a bit overblown. Huge questions still remain about the efficacy of health apps, what patients really want, what physicians will actually use, and how to pay for all that R&D along the way.

The ultimate guidance I took away from the Summit: Take your time with this one.

There's no clear answer for whether you should buy mobile devices for your staff, or allow physicians and other staff to use their personal devices for work. I went to the Summit hoping for some clarity here, but it's hopelessly divided and depends largely upon the CIO's perspective, as well as the health system's priorities.

Some CIOs are adamant that hospitals shouldn't dictate the type of device or platforms that physicians can use. Their thinking: Hospitals shouldn't be in the business of choosing, supporting, or managing mobile devices. With new security controls and cloud computing, it's possible to keep patient data completely off mobile phones and tablets, they said. It does reduce the amount of control you have as a CIO over the devices, but it also shrinks the number of headaches.

Others insist that buying doctors a smartphone or tablet is the only real way to control and protect patient data. Sandboxing or partitioning software is too new to rely on, for one thing. And for another, hospital electronic health records and other software can perform unevenly on different platforms and devices. The danger there is having physicians get so frustrated trying to use your systems on their particular brand of device that they stop trying.

Then, there's the eternal challenge of controlling which software and apps your staff load onto their tablets (and bringing into contact with your EHR). Malware often hitches a ride, so being able to proscribe which apps can be downloaded may be an important capability, going forward.

Get on the stick with mobile marketing. It's a completely new kind of branding/advertising for your hospital. And while I may tell you to take your time with mobile app development, I'd say the opposite about mobile branding marketing. There are some major differences from the usual online advertising approach. And a handful of health systems, like Cleveland Clinic, are way out in front on this one. Start now and you might catch up. Wait much longer and they'll have sucked all the air out of this proverbial room.

Here's one example: Mobile marketing is more for "information seekers" than "treatment seekers," right now, said Clinic reps. That means mobile campaigns should provide intriguing factoids, rather than a call to action. The idea is to get your audience used to coming to your mobile site for health information now, so that they'll automatically do it later when they do need treatment.

Keep an eye out for more info from the Summit in the week ahead. - Sara