No technology has ever been adopted as fast as the smartphone - ever. Consumers have embraced these devices faster than the automobile, electricity, personal computers, and even the internet. In less than a decade, more than half of U.S. mobile phone customers have made the transition to smartphones. And as we know, these devices are far more than phones; they are constantly connected computers stuffed with sensors that fit in a pocket or purse.
Even in a pocket or purse, these miraculous devices have the potential to provide better access to health care and help us live healthier lives. Leaders in the mobile health industry are also asking how can they help improve patient outcomes and lead to happier caregivers? How will mobile technology allow people to live at home longer and with greater dignity as they age?
We're already seeing evidence of how this technology will revolutionize the way patients monitor their health and interact with healthcare providers. With a smartphone, users can connect to their physician from anywhere in the world and provide diagnostic data. Phones and tablets now serve as a platform connecting to medical devices that allow patients to monitor their blood pressure, glucose levels, and other vital statistics at home and transmit this data daily to a health care provider.
Mobile devices are also able to connect physicians with those in underserved communities, remote areas, or with limited mobility for whom office visits are difficult and occur infrequently. With connected wireless devices providing more and more diagnostic data, doctors can spot the early signs of adverse conditions and take preventive measures to improve health outcomes.
In fact, mobile apps are already saving lives.
Ideomed's Abriiz has helped reduce children's emergency room visits by more than 80 percent. The AirStrip app allows physicians to monitor vitals from a number of patients on an iPad from any location. And using the AliveCor ECG app, a doctor on a cross-country flight was able to diagnose a passenger's chest pains as a heart attack and help save his life.
However, in all health and medical-related endeavors, the first rule must be to do no harm. This dichotomy has attracted the attention of policymakers in Washington, and more particularly the interest of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA ensures the safety of consumer medical devices and must determine which apps and devices require rigorous testing and regulation and those that do not. For this reason, the health community has been eagerly awaiting FDA guidance on how medical apps would be regulated, and where would the FDA give innovators room to grow.
Without that FDA guidance, investors were withholding financing for mobile health initiatives, hospitals were unsure how and which apps to allow within a hospital, and no one was quite clear on how data collected by patients could be shared with doctors in a way that improved care without legal pitfalls. Thankfully, just last week the FDA issued its final guidance right before the government shutdown, providing an expansive list of app types and their regulatory status - including apps that may be considered medical devices, but where the FDA was granting leeway for innovation.
Projects that had been stalled are now moving forward. With a much clearer view of the regulatory environment, a surge of investment is underway that will yield a wave of new services for healthcare consumers. We are seeing early indications of how this marketplace will operate.
Business models for the mobile app industry have iterated rapidly. The most successful apps currently monetize through in-app purchases and targeted advertising generating revenue from user data. This has worked for many app categories, particularly games and entertainment, but these models don't fit the needs of health care consumers.
The medical app industry provides services handling very sensitive personal health data. We are finding that consumers are more willing to pay for mobile medical services and less likely to share personal information. Increasingly, the consumers for these mobile solutions are healthcare providers, professionals, and enterprise level entities. The scale of these institutions means that incredible opportunities exist for app makers that can produce reliable, secure, and trusted applications.
As the industry continues to grow, investors and app developers will monitor future regulatory and enforcement activity by the FDA. They will also keep a close eye on the FCC's spectrum and incentive auctions, as spectrum is a critical issue for mobile medical apps: if the networks can't deliver the data, consumer confidence will suffer. As we already face spectrum scarcity with demand rising sharply every year, it is imperative that the FCC gets these auctions right.
With the FDA's steps to foster innovation and spectrum relief on the horizon, the outlook for the mobile medical marketplace is bright. History will look back on the impact of mobile devices with the same kind of awe that people have for the era before the automobile. The stories about walking ten miles to school in a foot of snow will sound as unbelievable as "I had to visit the doctor's office for my annual checkup." The technology is here and innovation is occurring every day to bring us closer to better health.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, the mHealth Alliance and HIMSS Media in conjunction with the mHealth Summit, which will take place in the Washington, DC, area on December 8-11, 2013. The Summit brings together leaders across sectors to advance the use of wireless technology to improve health outcomes, both in the United States and globally. For more information about the mHealth Summit, click here.