Playing ostrich with mHealth app development could stifle innovation

Municipalities, from village halls to Congressional offices, have a duty and responsibility to serve the people--the taxpayers funding government, the citizens needing services, Americans expecting best-of-breed government decision-making.

After all, ours is a democracy built on capitalism that rewards mightily if something works and works well. So it's not out of line to expect government to foster, support and yes, lead when it comes to mobile health technology.

What we don't expect, and what we shouldn't get, is government running and hiding, effectively burying its collective head in the sand when faced with technology obstacles.

Yet, that's exactly what the federal government appears to be doing.

Governmental agencies are grappling with many challenges in creating mHealth apps, ranging from managing a changing development culture to potential litigious issues, as outlined in a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The findings from "The Long Way From Government Open Data to Mobile Health Apps: Overcoming Institutional Barriers in the US Federal Government," are not very encouraging. The study, which conducted interviews with 35 agency managers regarding mobile app building, reveals innovation isn't likely happening much, given agencies are simply avoiding any type of application that may involve collection, analysis, and use of patient data.

Why? Because that would involve having to deal with regulatory issues and restrictions tied to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal action specifically crafted for protecting patient data, patient rights, and patient privacy.

"Instead, they simply avoided the collection of patient data, and handled mobile app development in a conservative manner," the report's authors said.

Then there's this in the conclusion: 

"All pathways of the development process incur a set of major obstacles that have to be actively managed before agencies can promote mobile apps on their websites and app stores." The obstacles are listed out as "accessibility, interoperability, security, privacy, and legal concerns using interactive apps tracking citizens."

From what I can tell, those same obstacles face every mobile app and device developer. It's likely exactly why Apple spent hours and hours with government regulators last year as it prepped its wearable-to-come, the Apple Watch. No point devising a smart wearable if apps can't do much more than count steps and offer diet tips.

The federal government has to start actively hurdling each and every one of those obstacles, just like everyone else. Turning your head, not even attempting to try and make some inroad to create data-centric apps that can help citizens live healthier, longer lives--which goes straight to saving on healthcare costs--is irresponsible at the least, as well as disheartening and disappointing.

Municipalities, with all their resources, research and development capabilities and technology competency, as well as money, have no excuse to play ostrich when it comes to development of mobile health tools. Here's hoping that the strategy changes and changes this year, as government should be a role model in the burgeoning mobile healthcare environment. - Judy (@JudyMottl and @FierceHealthIT)

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