Mobile healthcare innovation makes big headlines in 2016

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We take a look at the big mobile health stories of 2016.

This year brought a deluge of mobile healthcare technology news, from research findings to regulatory changes to new payer- and provider-developed tools.  

The past 12 months also revealed how and where big tech players are committed to mHealth strategies and playing a vibrant role in advancing tools, from apps to web-based platforms. And we also shared insights and strategies about mHealth from some of the top healthcare leaders on how mHealth is taking root.

And when we say deluge, we mean it. Check out this roundup of some of the biggest mHealth stories in 2016.

Robust growth in play

In the first week of the year, insight from the ACT | The App Association noted that 2016 presented an enormous opportunity for connected health companies, with the “sweet spot” in chronic care management given the aging population which is estimated to be increasing by 10,000 a day in the U.S. Another focal point, according to Morgan Reed, ACT executive director, is the emerging role of sensors within wearable devices and systems and developing sensors "into a product that meets the needs of care providers, patients and insurers."

The ACT report released in January also predicted a seismic shift in connected health technologies coming in the next four years. The market is projected to hit $117 billion by 2020, and 86% of clinicians believe mobile apps will be central to patient health in that time frame.

A February Juniper Research report predicted that more than 157 million people will be using mobile health tools in four years, and that the spike in adoption would be due to increasing provider initiatives aimed at battling infectious diseases and improving infant mortality.

Linda Rogers, associate professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, holds a similar view of the robust mHealth landscape. She said that while mHealth is “really just starting to take root,” she expects “explosive growth" in the new few years.

One driving force will be the realization that data sharing, which is critical to mHealth innovation, is not as scary as reports have claimed, according to Partners HealthCare’s Joseph Kvedar. The advantages of mHealth hold great potential for consumers.

“What we unfortunately don’t talk about is what consumers have to gain by sharing their data,” Kvedar said. “Yes, there is always some risk sharing personal data—whether online banking or communicating with your healthcare provider. But there are also rewards.”

Providers, payers, industry taking big mHealth steps

Mobile's role in population health management

With regard to providers and payers' mHealth efforts, Carolinas HealthCare System kicked off the year by deploying a mobile app that collects data from patient mobile devices, tracks and monitors vital signs and activities and allows users to share that data with care providers.

In the same month NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital continued to build out its growing suite of mHealth services, initially launched in 2014, by teaming with its Regional Hospital Network to build a new mobile app to boost communication and access to care providers and the hospital center. The year’s developments included a virtual service providing digital follow-up appointments, one of four new services announced this summer as part of the NYP OnDemand initiative.

That digital health platform, announced in July, is aimed at boosting and expanding patient care while providing extended clinical expertise and access to peers in the healthcare network.

In February, Ochsner Health System launched an "Optimal Hospital" initiative, which is the first project to come out of the hospital's iO innovation lab. The effort taps mobile devices to spur greater patient interaction in care and giving providers more time with patients than with paperwork.

Boston Children’s Hospital was as busy as NYP this year, creating a 14-point mobile app development guide for bring-your-own-device hospital environments and launching an app-based study to research temperature variations.

In May, MedStar Health announced it was developing a customer engagement platform to give users a bevy of digital capabilities, from scheduling appointments to a collaborative environment for determining best care scenarios.

In July, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center kicked off a cloud platform initiative tapping wearable sensors and mobile tools to investigate the impact cancer treatments have on quality of life.

In November, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai launched an enterprise-wide platform allowing doctors to prescribe apps to patients.

Regulatory scope is one of growing support


In February the federal government, in a continuing quest to help the healthcare industry better understand HIPAA rules, released guidance focused on mHealth examining six scenarios regarding health apps and HIPAA.

In April, the World Health Organization announced a checklist to improve the standards that are set for reporting of mHealth efforts, with a goal of raising the quality of evidence from such initiatives.

During the same month, Bakul Patel, associate director for digital health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said mHealth regulatory compliance must start with app and device makers. 

Later in April, the Joint Commission ended its five-year ban on clinical use of texting, citing improved messaging security technology in play. Healthcare providers and caretakers can now use text to send patient orders, but only if such tools meet the commission's requirements.

In July, healthcare professionals lobbied federal government officials to eliminate barriers to mobile healthcare development, create better data security and privacy rules and foster a supportive environment for advancements in mHealth tools during a Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade hearing.

Also in July, a report from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT noted gaps in privacy and security protections offered by mHealth tools.

In August, the FDA announced materials for mHealth device makers regarding reporting on product modifications and guidance on software changes.

In October, the FDA released a draft document focused on the requirements for clinical evaluation of software-as-a-medical-device in a quest to “harmonize” U.S. policy with guidance from the International Medical Device Regulators Forum.

Tech titan takes big mHealth steps

This year wasn’t just one of providers, payers and independent developers driving mHealth innovation. Big-name tech titans announced a bevy of efforts.

Doctor wearing Google glasses

May was a big month for Google Glass. A study reported that a magnification app and Google Glass can provide visually impaired smartphone users with greater ease and capability in reading mobile device screen content.

Then came news of a pilot of a Google DeepMind kidney monitoring app with the National Health Service Royal Free Trust moving forward despite a reported regulatory hurdle.

In the same month, University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers announced they are tapping Google Glass for emergency room consultations and sharing real-time treatment data with outside medical specialists.

In September, Google’s Verily announced it was partnering with pharmaceutical giant Sanofi to create devices and software in a $500 million joint venture to help patients suffering from diabetes.

Apple’s mHealth strategy was just as busy in 2016. In March, Apple launched CareKit, building on the success of its ResearchKit platform, aimed at helping hospitals, health systems and developers build apps to better manage patients' health.

In May, Apple CEO Tim Cook declared the "Holy Grail" of Apple's Watch is its monitoring capabilities, now and in the future, and attaining deeper insight into the human body.

In mid-August, Apple filed an application for a wearable device capable of recording electrocardiographic signals. 

In October, a Bloomberg report noted Apple is prepping its HealthKit data-tracking platform to one day serve as a prime diagnostic option and is developing smarter electronic health record apps, as well as Watch apps, that will far exceed the capability to track heart rate.

In addition to the mHealth efforts of Google and Apple, IBM popped up with new mHealth news, announcing a partnership with the American Diabetes Association to foster a personalized mHealth app that works with Watson Care Manager. The partners are also developing a diabetes-focused app development challenge for tools that tap the association’s deep data and IBM Watson’s cognitive insights.

2017 promises innovative growth

A compass pointing to the word "Innovative"

With 2016 coming to a close, mHealth innovation is likely to be just as robust come 2017. One driving force will be new guidance promoting clinical mHealth apps released in mid-November by the American Medical Association.

Looking ahead toward 2017, ACT | The App Association’s Morgan Reed, told FierceMobileHealthcare that improving healthcare outcomes through the use of technology will become more essential to making value-based medicine work.

“I am hopeful that 2017 will be a breakout year, but it will take a lot of work,” said Reed.

Looking out over the next decade, Merck Manuals editor Robert Porter predicts a significant mHealth tool advancement on the horizon: the ability for mHealth tools to better handle natural language queries and to research multiple sources and integrate that knowledge into a single answer.

“Embedding this capability into medical record systems would then allow search and result to be very patient-specific, although it also would require more attention to information security,” he told FierceHealthcare.