Smartphones and tablets are playing a bigger role in healthcare, and more change will take place when providers connect with patients using mobile apps, healthcare experts say.
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The number of U.S. adults using mobile phones for health-related activities, including looking up health information, grew from 61 million in 2011 to 75 million in 2012, according to a Manhattan Research survey of 8,745 adults. Meanwhile, the number of people using tablet computers for healthcare nearly doubled from 15 million to 29 million.
Older consumers haven't been left behind: Nearly half of online consumers aged 55 and older who own or use a tablet are using these devices to look up health information or tools.
Finally, among the 15% of online consumers who have tablets, smartphones, and desktop computers or laptops, 60% are using all three types of devices for health-related online activities.
None of this surprises Joe Smith, MD, chief medical and science officer of West Health Institute, which promotes mobile health technologies and also helps develop and invest in them. "What we're witnessing is the rise of a technology that enables people to easily get health information without going to the high priests of healthcare," he told InformationWeek Healthcare. "The longstanding asymmetry between providers and patients on health information is starting to break down."
Older consumers' use of tablets for healthcare purposes, he said, "heralds a wonderful change in healthcare. You're seeing an emboldened, engaged aging population, and the country definitely needs that."
As for the use of multiple devices, he said, "it's pretty easy to access the information independent of the hardware platform. So I think it's more representative of the fact that people are using whatever gadget is available to them to find out information about their health."
In the survey results announcement, Monique Levy, VP of research at Manhattan Research, commented, "Growing ownership of connected devices and the access to digital health tools and information they provide is helping to drive the broader shift from intermittent to continuous care. This trend shows vast potential for changing key dynamics of healthcare delivery, including patient engagement, provider involvement, and how preventive care is incentivized."
Many consumers are already using standalone mobile health applications to track their fitness, wellness, exercise, and diet. Some are utilizing apps created for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, noted Smith, but there's still less use of those than there is for fitness and wellness tracking, he said.
Nevertheless, he said, as people get used to mobile technology that reminds them to take their pills or get more exercise, "they'll start using it to find out whether their asthma is likely to be worse today because of a pollen count, or is my heart rate climbing with my activity today in a different way than it has in the past, and as a result, is my heart failure getting worse?"
The real game changer, some observers say, will occur when healthcare providers start using mobile health applications to interact with patients. John Moore, founder and CEO of Chilmark Research, told InformationWeek Healthcare that an increasing number of healthcare organizations are realizing how mobile health apps could be deployed to engage patients and get them to manage their health better. Chilmark recently published a report on the subject.
Smith agreed with Moore's viewpoint. Fitness and wellness apps are easy to sell to people who are fairly healthy and just want to stay fit, he noted. "But it's not lost on hospital administrators that these apps can be used for chronic disease management and to keep people out of the hospital," he said. This will become increasingly important, he noted, as value-based reimbursement takes hold. And physicians, more and more of who are working for hospitals, will go along because they will have the same incentives to keep people as healthy as possible, he added.