Health Info Takes Center Stage On Mobile Phones

Number of consumers who use their cell phones to gather health information nearly doubles in two years. Fitness apps are popular.

Ken Terry, Contributor

November 13, 2012

4 Min Read

11 Super Mobile Medical Apps

11 Super Mobile Medical Apps

11 Super Mobile Medical Apps (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Nearly a third of cell phone owners used their phones to look up health information in 2012, compared with 17% two years earlier, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet Project. But the percentage of cell phone owners who used mobile health applications remained at about 10% over the last two years, Pew reported.

Fifty-two percent of smartphone users sought health information on their mobile devices, compared with just 6% of non-smartphone owners. The increase in cell phone use for this purpose since 2010 is directly related to the rise in percentage of people who had smartphones, said Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet Project, in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.

Texting, despite its ubiquity among cell phone users, is still not very common among healthcare consumers. The Pew survey found that 9% of cell phone users had received health or medical information via mobile texts. Ten percent of those with one or more chronic conditions received texts, vs. 6% of those who had no health conditions. The highest percentage of people who received health-related texts -- 12% -- were those who'd had a significant change in their health condition.

[ To see how patient engagement can help transform medical care, check out 5 Healthcare Tools To Boost Patient Involvement. ]

Fox noted that the survey did not fully capture the extent of health-related texting. The narrowly worded question about texting applied only to text alerts, not to texting between consumers about health concerns, she noted. "Instead of being about dialog, it was just about information," she said.

Among all cell phone users, 11% said they had mobile applications on their phone to track or manage health vs. 9% in 2010 -- an increase that Fox said was not significant. Of smartphone owners, 19% had one or more mobile health apps. Women, people under age 30, and better-educated consumers were more likely than other groups to use health-related apps on their smart phones. So were those who had experienced significant health changes.

Fox said that if the increase in adoption of smartphones -- now used by 45% of U.S adults -- continues at the current rate, "it's going to be a key indicator" of mobile health app growth in the future.

Smartphone owners who had one or more chronic conditions were not significantly more likely than other smartphone owners to download mobile health apps. However, that overstates the use of mobile health apps by all patients with chronic diseases, noted Joseph Kvedar, MD, director of Partners Healthcare's Center for Connected Health, in an interview. Chronically ill people, he pointed out, are less likely than the rest of the population to own a smartphone.

"So the very people who we'd like to see participate in the app-fest are people who generally are not rushing to use these technologies for illness management," he said.

In the Pew survey, the respondents used far more apps designed for health maintenance and fitness than apps created to address chronic disease. Thirty-eight percent of the mobile health apps that consumers downloaded were for exercise, fitness or heart rate monitoring; 31% were used to track diet, food and calories; and 12% were designed to help users lose weight.

Fox and Kvedar agreed that one reason why more chronic-disease patients aren't using mobile health apps is that few doctors are engaging them on that level so far. But as incentives change, Kvedar said, "providers are more receptive to these online tools."

The Center for Connected Health (CCH), which focuses on improving healthcare for chronic conditions, has not worked with mobile apps yet, Kvedar said, "because in our experience, patients are just not there yet. We'll do more in this space in the next year because we want to be there when the time is right. But it's still premature."

Meanwhile, the CCH has been focusing on text messaging for the chronically ill, he noted. "We're very excited about the possibilities of text messaging because you can reach someone in the moment and it's very personal, and generally they read texts as opposed to e-mails."

Clinical, patient engagement, and consumer apps promise to re-energize healthcare. Also in the new, all-digital Mobile Power issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: Comparative effectiveness research taps the IT toolbox to compare treatments to determine which ones are most effective. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Ken Terry


Ken Terry is a freelance healthcare writer, specializing in health IT. A former technology editor of Medical Economics Magazine, he is also the author of the book Rx For Healthcare Reform.

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