Smartphones have potential to reduce health disparities in America

Thanks to smartphone ownership, America's digital divide appears to be closing among demographic groups that historically have lagged behind when it comes to Internet access. Mobile technology has become especially critical for low-income minorities who otherwise can't afford desktop and laptop computers with web service.

Smartphones are proving to be an important alternative to computers for millions of Americans, providing them with access to the Internet when they have no other technological means of doing so. Not surprisingly, minority groups increasingly are using smartphones as their primary means of reaching the Internet due to their relative low cost and general availability.

Survey results released in September by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project indicate that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to own a smartphone, with 49 percent of Hispanics, 47 percent of African Americans, and 42 percent of whites owning these mobile devices.

This is good news for minorities because smartphones, as a platform for running mobile health applications, could not only reduce the digital divide, but also could serve as a catalyst for reducing health disparities among racial/ethnic groups in the United States. It's an encouraging development because minority health issues are a serious concern in this country.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, HIV infection/AIDS, cancer and lower rates of immunizations and cancer screening. For these groups, mHealth has the potential to be a powerful tool in promoting healthy living and preventive medicine, particularly in combating the high rates of diabetes in these populations.

African Americans have the highest prevalence of diabetes and the highest rate of adult obesity compared to any other racial/ethnic group. And, Hispanics have a death rate due to diabetes that is 40 percent higher than for non-Hispanic whites. In August 2011, a web/cell phone-based platform proved effective in helping patients manage type 2 diabetes. What's more, a mobile app and personalized online web portal recently was launched to provide diabetics with daily education, encouragement and support via text messages.

Putting smartphones in the hands of African Americans and Hispanics is the first step in potentially bridging the health gap in America. It's the reason HHS has called on developers to create a mobile application to help educate minority women about cancer screenings and allow secure access to medical records. Will minority groups use their smartphones for these kinds of mobile health applications? Time will tell. - Greg