According to the International Telecommunications Union, there were 6 billion mobile subscriptions by the end of last year; that’s 87 percent of the world’s population. Mobile technology is rapidly expanding while its expense is lessening, which has suddenly placed so much promise into the hands of so many. A world in which high quality health services stream through low-cost mobile devices has the capability of changing healthcare as we know and on a global scale. From creating awareness about HIV/ AIDS in underserved countries to counting the calories in a cheeseburger, the pervasiveness and potential of mHealth applications seem uncapped. But like anything unbridled, there is a lot of uncertainty about how to tame it, and while the enthusiasm associated with such innovation is palpable, its integration into the healthcare system is not yet fully perceivable. Here’s a look at the top five hurdles that stand between mHealth and those it promises to serve: 1. Cost Structure Sure technology is getting more economical, but someone still has to pay the price for it. So who gets the bill? For now, that question goes mostly unanswered until mHealth business models (including provider services, direct-to-consumer and clinical technology integration) further develop and mature. Not figuring out the cost structure may stunt many mHealth innovations in their infancy and leave healthcare providers leery of adoption. According to global management consulting firm A.T Kearney and its report (Mobile Health, Who Pays?), mHealth cannot reach its full potential without moving into the complex environment of healthcare reimbursement driven by government and/or insurers. “Currently, very few mobile health solutions are directly reimbursed by health payers. Most are targeted at health providers or as consumer products,” the report states. Emerging into the healthcare payer market won’t be easy; if anything, it will be complex. The report points to a number of factors that have to be considered as to whether a particular technology will be funded by payers, including willingness to pay and existing budget constraints. Tangible value creation also needs to be considered, which leads to the next hurdle: 2. Evidence of Effectiveness It’s hard to predict payment value of these new technologies without measurable outcomes that prove its power or proficiency. With many of these technologies still in the “pilot” stages, there isn’t much to measure. A.T Kearney’s report indicates technologies that can show measurable results, such as lives saved, will more likely be funded than a tool that promises a broader social value. The consensus: although mHealth’s reach is rather long, it’s going to have to find ways to show just how many lives it’s really touching—or better yet— changing. 3. Security/Privacy These days you can’t talk about technology in healthcare without running into this quandary. It’s a valid concern, and so it’s equally valid to ask: how will mHealth suppliers set out to protect all the information it seeks to connect? Ensuring that the technology is compliant with HIPAA regulations is, of course, of primary concern. Embedding encryption and integrating auto ID and device security features into mHealth applications is only part of the solution, according to Adam Green, a nationally-recognized authority on HIPAA and the HITECH Act. Here’s what he had to say about the hurdles of security at the last mHealth Summit: “With all due respect to vendors, there is no such thing as HIPAA compliant software. Software can only address technical safeguards. Software cannot enforce polices upon a provider. It cannot necessarily train the provider on how to use or disclose the information, so be a bit leery. On the technical side, you can certainly have software that is better than other software, but ultimately, HIPAA compliance falls on the provider.” That realization brings back the question of the true costs of mHealth solutions. What will be the operational cost of training employees to use the technologies appropriately? Better yet, what will be the costs in terms of security if they don’t? 4. Regulations and Standards On the HIPAA compliance aside, there’s more to consider. Although the FDA has developed and produced a list of mobile devices that can be regulated, many loose ends remain. Equally concerning is creating a set of common standards for devices and applications. While efforts are being made, it’s tough to reign in what’s yet to be invented. Thus, there is a price to limitless possibilities: it’s hard to establish limits. Those two issues alone speak to perhaps mHealth’s biggest hurdle to overcome. In fact, all of mHealth’s challenges are tied to it. 5. Pace of Development mHealth technology is growing and expanding at an unprecedented rate. According to Chilmark Research and its report, its value in the future market will exceed $1.1 billion by 2017. But it’s hard to catch a speeding bullet, so initiatives concerning cost structure, evidence, security, regulations, and standards will have to keep pace. But it will take more than sheer speed for healthcare providers to assimilate; it will also require an increasing agility to adapt to the adaptable. That’s because mobile technology isn’t just growing, it’s evolving, too. That poses quite a challenge for healthcare organizations that are still simply trying to ready themselves for Healthcare Reform and achieve meaningful use. Keeping that in mind, maybe the mHealth providers need to slow down and take a breath, while the healthcare system catches its own.
Fred Pennic is the founder of HIT Consultant, a healthcare technology focused digital media outlet for healthcare IT professionals. Fred has significant experience in the HIT field as a management consultant working with some of the leading healthcare providers across the country. Fred also consults with HIT companies on social & digital media marketing & strategy.
What other hurdles do you see for mHealth? Please share your thoughts.
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