Mobile health for chronic patients: Examining the hurdles

Mobile devices can play a tremendous role in helping those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by providing treatment outside of a clinical setting, according to research highlighted in this week's FierceMobileHealthcare. Such tools can save providers big money by reducing hospital readmission rates, which are pretty substantial among COPD patients, in particular, due to the complexities in managing and treating the disease.

The win-win, however, doesn't come without some "buts," as pulmonologist Surya Bhatt, M.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham shared with me in an email interview this week. The research effort reveals continuing weak spots in deployment and implementation of mobile technology to patients that need to be eliminated.

The first, notes Bhatt, is that not everyone is an avid smartphone user. While Bhatt's team was "pleasantly surprised" at how patients in the study adapted to using smartphones and apps that allowed them real time communication with physicians and helped them track daily treatment efforts, he noted that his team specifically created an approach that was as simple as possible to help with patients facing a big learning curve.

"There can be challenges with familiarization and willingness to use technology," he said.

A second challenge is the need for robust mHealth network and communication system with the necessary infrastructure. That's a prime reason Bhatt's team is now collaborating with UAB engineers to improve data and energy efficiency aspects to enable transmission of large amounts of data in packets without overburdening the system.

Both these aspects, which play an equal role in making mHealth viable and more accessible, are key to an approach he believes is the future of medicine.

The potential savings in providing asthma and COPD patients quick and cheap reminders to use their inhalers, as well as the ability to share with physicians when an inhaler is not being used, are huge. So, too, are the potential savings of ensuring that blood sugar levels are shared with doctors' offices.

"The possibilities," Bhatt notes, "are numerous."

The key, he says, lies in the simple act of education: the more providers and payers, patients and physicians know about the benefits the more progress can be made in decimating the obstacles.

"Showing that this [mHealth, telehealth] works is perhaps the best way to encourage embracement by the health system and especially insurance providers," Bhatt says.

Thanks to efforts like Bhatt's, we're well on our way.  - Judy (@JudyMottl and @FierceHealthIT)