Mobile Health Revolution: Doctors And Patients Disagree

Many doctors frown on consumers' interest in mobile health, says PwC report. But that's only half the story.

Paul Cerrato, Contributor

June 12, 2012

3 Min Read

12 Mobile Health Apps Worth A Closer Look

9 Mobile Health Apps Worth A Closer Look

9 Mobile Health Apps Worth A Closer Look (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

A recent PwC survey finds that about half of consumers believe mobile health technology will improve healthcare. And 59% of those who use some form of mobile health technology say it has replaced visits to doctors and nurses. But the report also says that, although the public is enthusiastic about mobile health tech, most doctors aren't as enamored with patients' use of it.

"Only 27% encourage patients to use mHealth apps in order to become more active in managing their health; 13% actively discourage it," according to the report, Emerging mHealth: Paths For Growth.

The survey revealed that 64% of physicians "worry that mHealth makes patients too independent." In a video posted on the PwC website, Christopher Wasden, PwC global healthcare innovation leader, offers his perspective: With mobile technology, "consumers are now empowered with information on price, services, wait times, and quality. ... So they start making decisions like they would in any other marketplace."

The implication is clear: Clinicians fear that if patients have increased mobile access to medical information, doctors will lose control of how medicine is practiced and lose revenue.

Many physicians worry that their traditional role as captain of the healthcare ship will weaken as consumers use mobile health apps or access websites on their smartphones to gain more control of their own care. As these data sources provide patients with cost comparisons for gallbladder surgery and colonoscopies, and let them see complication rates for local physicians, those patients are empowered to choose the clinicians who offer the best service for the most reasonable fee.

[ Wearable devices equipped with sensors and Web connections help consumers track health and fitness. Take a look at what's possible now. 10 Wearable Devices To Keep Patients Healthy. ]

But self-interest isn't the only motive driving physicians' resistance to mobile health. Many doctors are also genuinely concerned about the potential dangers of mobile health apps when put into the hands of uninformed patients.

With eight years of specialized training in medical school and residency plus several years of direct patient care, doctors obviously have good reason to consider themselves better qualified to diagnose and treat disease than patients who rely on a Google search or mobile app, in conjunction with over-the-counter and folk remedies.

Physicians have legitimate concerns about the harm that these apps can do. And any profession with specialized knowledge would feel the same way. If civil engineers were suddenly told the entire construction industry was being deregulated and a car mechanic or a landscaper could now draw up the blueprints for suspension bridges, they'd fear for the public's safety.

Of course, you can take this analogy too far. There are all sorts of construction projects that don't require an engineer's services, and there are lots of relatively minor health problems that consumers can manage without professional help. But there are many they can't handle--and don't always realize it until it's too late.

The medical and lay literature is full of horror stories about patients treating their own cancers with herbal medicine, for example, who die after they refused professional help. And there are unscrupulous IT developers who won't think twice about offering mobile apps that make unrealistic claims about some "innovative" health regimen.

In the final analysis, both consumers and clinicians must find a middle ground. Physicians have to get used to the idea of sharing the decision-making process, and patients should accept that reading a few articles on the Internet does not make them an expert.

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About the Author(s)

Paul Cerrato


Paul Cerrato has worked as a healthcare editor and writer for 30 years, including for InformationWeek Healthcare, Contemporary OBGYN, RN magazine and Advancing OBGYN, published by the Yale University School of Medicine. He has been extensively published in business and medical literature, including Business and Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has also lectured at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and Westchester Medical Center.

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