mHealth Summit outlines industry shift from 'what if?' to 'what now?'

What a difference a year makes. At last year's mHealth summit, sessions focused on the potential of mobile healthcare to improve access and quality, while participants debated whether or not there was enough evidence to support the hypothesis that it would. Now, with thousands of health apps in development, in pilots, or already on the market, the focus has shifted to getting doctors and patients to use--and keep using--the apps.

Mobile devices are everywhere, Patricia Wise, HIMSS vice president of health information systems, said at a session at this year's summit, held this week in Washington, D.C. On Monday, HIMSS released survey results that found that more than 90 percent of doctors are using mobile devices to access patient data, while 84 percent of non-clinicians, 70 percent of healthcare leaders and 62 percent of support staff also are using such devices in a similar fashion.

That's quite a shift from the not-so-distance past, when doctors had to be brought "kicking and screaming" to mHealth, Wise said. Now they're coming along willingly. That's good news for patient adoption, since, according to Wise, "consumers will mirror the activity and what they see their provider doing."

But while there's widespread availability of mobile devices and a plethora of healthcare apps from which to choose, getting patients to download, use and continue to use mHealth apps remains a challenge.

For example, the U.S. Army's Wounded Warrior project is using mobile health to engage its clients, sending text appointment reminders, health and wellness information, and offering secure bi-directional messaging. But patients need incentives to stay engaged in the mCare program, Col. Ron Poropatich, MD, deputy director of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center said at a session on patient adherence. Thus, the program also sends participants news and sports headlines, unit announcements and a daily joke.

Dr. Jennifer Dyer is an endocrinologist who left private practice to work on an app to help diabetes patients better adhere to their care regimens. She said that personalized text messages, rewards and a close patient-physician relationship helped keep teenage patients engaged during testing of her EndoGoddess app.

Participants also earn iTunes reward points for performing actions such as checking their glucose. That's a motivator for teens, she said, even though the cost of one song download is relatively small. (The account is funded by relatives, giving them a stake in the patient's care, as well, she added.)

Patient adherence to healthcare regimens is not a new challenge for healthcare, Wendy J. Nilson, health science administrator for the National Institutes of Health, said at a special executive session on care coordination and accountable care models hosted by FierceMobileHealthcare. Nor is it a problem distinct to mobile health, she added. There is plenty of research on how to motivate people to use interventions and keep using them. Her advice: "Don't forget what we've done before."