Mobile health in your palm

Technology companies, medical field developing mobile apps to improve patient health

  • Ryan Sysko and Suzanne Sysko Clough, brother-sister founders of WellDoc Inc., display the system they developed for a patient to manage diabetes care. WellDoc Inc. makes software which links cell phones, medical devices and websites together for medical monitoring of chronic diseases, and has grown to about 80 employees since 2005.
Ryan Sysko and Suzanne Sysko Clough, brother-sister founders… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
December 03, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Looking to better manage your diet, your vital signs or a chronic disease?

There's a mobile app for that.

One of the current buzzwords in health care technology is "mHealth," for mobile health. At its simplest, the concept encompasses regular text messages to pregnant mothers charting the baby's growth.

But boosters envision more complex applications that would integrate medical devices, wireless networks and mobile phones to reach large segments of the population and help them manage their health and ailments.

That potential is fast arriving here in Maryland and beyond. Rockville-based CTIS Inc., for instance, is working with Walter Reed Army Medical Center to design an app called "mWarrior" for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to use on smart phones. And Baltimore-based WellDoc has devised an application that allows users to wirelessly connect blood glucose meters to their cell phones.

Software designers, medical device manufacturers, wireless providers, hospitals and insurance companies are targeting different aspects of the complex effort — including learning how to tap the potential of mobile devices in health care and getting the technology to "talk" to each other. They are asking: How would a blood-pressure monitor communicate with a smart phone?

Industry observers are excited about the potential and say the key is finding ways that consumers can easily use and widely adopt the mobile health technologies.

The mHealth industry is "extremely diverse and all over the map," said John Moore, health care technology analyst and managing partner with Chilmark Research in Cambridge, Mass. "There's a major issue with consumer education and getting them to understand what this is, and how will this be used."

As more powerful smart phones have been embraced by consumers, companies are rushing to develop apps that encourage users to focus on their health and well-being. And more manufacturers are designing medical devices that can integrate with wireless networks and mobile phones.

The diversity of the industry was evident at the mHealth Summit in Washington last month. Mobile health practitioners, technology companies and public health experts from all over the world participated in the conference — which had triple the attendance from the year before, at about 2,400.

The market is potentially vast. Research2Guidance, a German-based market research company, estimates that mobile health applications will be used by 500 million people of a total 1.4 billion smart phone owners worldwide in 2015.

In the United States, nearly three in 10 cell phone users have accessed medical information on it, according to a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And about one in 10 Americans have apps on their phones that help them track or manage their health, according to the survey.

"The Internet is changing people's relationship to information, and wireless access makes information portable, personalized and participatory," said Susannah Fox, a researcher with Pew.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers' Health Research Institute recently found in a survey that 40 percent of consumers were willing to pay for remote monitoring devices and a monthly service fee for the convenience of being able to send data automatically to their doctors. The firm estimated that that market potential ranged from $7.7 billion to $43 billion a year.

But big questions remain over who will ultimately bear the majority of the costs for such new technologies: patients, insurance providers, hospitals, the government, or some combination.

And there's another issue to watch. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices, is developing new guidelines for mobile health applications and devices, to respond to the emerging marketplace. The FDA could clamp down on new mobile health devices and applications that pose a safety risk.

So far, mobile health applications available on the main smart phone platforms are numerous and broad, and still largely in their infancy in terms of technological sophistication and usefulness, according to industry observers.

Some programs and applications use simple text messages to help people quit smoking or better manage a pregnancy. Text4Baby, for instance, is a popular text-messaging program that sends texts weekly to mothers to help them through pregnancy and a child's first year.

More complex technologies integrate cell phones with Web-based software, electronic medical records and even medical devices to deliver better chronic care for a disease like Type II diabetes.

WellDoc Inc., a Baltimore-based company, makes chronic disease management software for mobile phones. The company has received FDA approval to sell its mobile software for use by people who suffer from diabetes and recently partnered with AT&T Inc., which has launched a health care technology business.

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