What Is mHealth? A Closer Look at This Branch of Digital Health

smart phone with stethoscope plugged in

Whether you’ve ever heard of the specific term “mHealth” or not, there’s a good chance you or someone you know is already using something that falls under its umbrella. Maybe they use an app to help monitor and keep their blood glucose levels on track or maybe they use their health system’s app to check on bloodwork results ordered by their doctor. These are all examples of mHealth—or mobile health.

It’s no secret smart phones have exploded in popularity and use over the past decade or so. With so many people nearly constantly connected by these devices, it’s only natural that mobile health applications are being used to augment how healthcare is delivered. It’s likely that mHealth applications will continue to grow along with patients’ expectations of them. For instance, one study found that 70 percent of patients are more likely to choose a provider who offers reminders for follow-up via email or text than one who doesn’t.1 Other industries like retail and banking have seen dramatic shifts by harnessing the power of mobile technology—is healthcare about to undergo a similar change? In this article we’ll take a closer look at what exactly mHealth is and how it currently fits into the healthcare landscape.

What is mHealth?

Mobile health includes medical services and public health activities enabled by mobile devices. Most uses of mobile health are delivered by either texting or through apps. And there are a lot of apps. One study reports that, as of 2017, over 318,000 mobile health apps were available on app stores, with hundreds being added daily.2 While obviously not every last one of these apps is going to be high quality, it’s clear a lot of effort is being placed on creating mobile health apps within this space. These apps primary fall into two categories:

  • Wellness apps that help users manage diet, lifestyle and exercise habits.
  • Health condition management apps spanning diabetes, women’s health conditions, heart conditions and medication reminders.

Though many of these apps are used as a form of preventative care, like helping patients maintain a healthy weight, reduce stress and take prescribed medications, more and more disease- and condition-specific apps are emerging and making a big difference in the lives of those who live with chronic conditions. 

How does mHealth fit into digital health?

With so much technology being embraced in the healthcare industry, you may be confused as to where mHealth fits in. What’s the difference between digital health and mHealth? Digital health is an umbrella term that covers all technology meant to improve patient outcomes, while mobile health is subcategory of digital health.

Though mHealth is only considered one piece of the digital health puzzle, it frequently incorporates other aspects of digital health. For example, biometric cameras that work to measure a patient’s vitals away from the doctor’s office, wearable devices for tracking steps and sleep patterns, and telemedicine to help patients and doctors communicate all fall within the broad category of digital health.

How is mHealth used by patients and providers?

Mobile health is making a tangible difference in the lives of patients and the care of providers. Patients can use mHealth data either on their own or in conjunction with their care team. Many wellness-based apps—like those for exercise, sleep or food tracking—are for the patient’s eyes only unless they choose to share the results with their doctor to discuss. Patients also use electronic health record (EHR) apps which allow them to view their health records and test results outside the confines of their doctor’s office. Other patient benefits of mHealth include:

  • Tracking their own health data through mHealth apps and devices.
  • Accessing their clinical records through mobile-enabled patient portal apps.
  • The use of mHealth voice assistants and smart speakers for those unable to use keyboards.
  • Sending messages or questions to their physician using a mobile app.
  • Requesting prescription refills through their pharmacy’s mobile app.
  • Scheduling and confirming appointments and also receiving appointment reminders.

Not only can patients do all this with mHealth, it’s now easier than ever to do so with the conveniences of wearable devices, smart phones and voice assistants in the home. Mobile health can also save patients’ time when seeking health information and even diagnosis for minor conditions. This, in turn, can enable doctors to serve more patients more effectively.

For instance, some mobile health apps allow care teams to observe patients’ vital indicators like blood pressure, blood glucose or lung function with alerts being triggered if the values are out of range. Additionally, some clinics now have the ability to provide virtual appointments which allow patients to see a doctor or a nurse via a secure chat—perfect for addressing quick questions and concerns.

“By having tools available in their pockets to manage illness, it reinforces positive habits such as taking medications properly and doing vital measurements. These help improve patients' confidence and provide more convenient channels for family to support their loved ones,” says Simon Greenberg of MedManage

Aside from interacting with patients, providers also use mHealth to collaborate with care teams on the go, access clinical information remotely, and communicate with specialists in other locations—potentially reducing wait time for patients.

Potential economic benefits of mHealth

We’ve seen how patients and healthcare providers use mobile health, but how might these practices benefit the overall U.S. healthcare system? The IQVIA Institute’s report states that the use of mobile health apps has reduced acute care utilization for five large patient populations (diabetes, diabetes prevention, asthma, cardiac rehabilitation and pulmonary rehabilitation) which has saved the U.S. healthcare system an estimated $7 billion per year.2

Another potential economic benefit that’s challenging to quantify is the impact of patients potentially seeking additional preventative care. If it’s more convenient to reach out to a healthcare provider about an issue, it stands to reason that patients would be less likely to drag their feet in getting it checked out. If providers can address potential problems earlier, the need for more drastic and costly interventions should drop.

Disadvantages of mHealth

Though mobile health capabilities have grown exponentially the last few years, policies regarding privacy and accuracy are having trouble keeping up. Chances are you aren’t reading every word of the privacy policies that pop up when sign in to a new app—and who can blame you? Dense user agreements and privacy policies are hard to wade through and may include key disclosures about who is seeing your health data and what it can be used for. “Medical information and data is really lucrative and mHealth is a large target,” says Greenberg.

Lack of privacy can be harmful to app users in the long run. Nefarious parties can sell personal health data to insurance companies which in turn can restrict users’ access to health or life insurance based on the health data they’ve shared with the app. A British Medical Journal study of 24 Android health apps found that information like medications and locations were passed from app developers to their parent firms to third and even fourth party entities.3

Unlike with EHR and health system apps, HIPAA privacy policy currently does not apply to wellness apps. That means it’s up to you to choose your mHealth apps wisely. Consider these tips when evaluating wellness apps:

  • Read and reread privacy policies.
  • Review the privacy settings on your mobile devices and inside the app.
  • Be especially careful with free or ad-supported apps.
  • Play it safe and don’t download if you’re not sure.

Are mHealth apps FDA approved?

Accuracy is another concern for mobile health apps as many are not approved by a regulatory body. So what can go wrong? While it’s just a look at one app, a study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that 77.5 percent of patients with hypertension were falsely reassured with inaccurate values provided by an app used for measuring blood pressure.4

How can you be sure an mHealth app is accurate? To start, you can check to see if the app is approved by the FDA and visit the FDA website for more information regarding their guidelines for regulation. You should also consult with your doctor about the accuracy of any mHealth app you’re considering, especially if you have a serious health condition. “There is no doubt that there will be an increase in mHealth in the future but it should never replace proper clinical examination and investigation for the more serious conditions,” says Dr. Laurence Gerlis, founder of samedaydoctor.

mHealth is changing healthcare. How can you?

There’s no doubt that mHealth is an emerging trend in global healthcare. These mobile health applications can make quality healthcare more accessible, allow health systems and providers to more easily acquire and utilize health information, and improve overall patient care. If you’re passionate about bettering patient care through technology, you may want to consider becoming a health information technician. Learn more in our article, “What Is a Health Information Technician? A Sneak Peek at this Behind-the-Sciences Career.”

1Accenture Consulting, Accenture 2019 Digital Health Consumer Survey US Results, Today’s Consumers Reveal the Future of Healthcare, [accessed September, 2019] https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/pdf-94/accenture-2019-digital-health-consumer-survey.pdf
2IQVIA institute for Human Data Science, The Growing Value of Digital Health: Evidence and Impact on Human Health and the Healthcare System, [accessed September, 2019] https://www.iqvia.com/institute/reports/the-growing-value-of-digital-health
3British Medical Journal, Data sharing practices of medicines related apps and the mobile ecosystem: traffic, content, and network analysis [accessed September, 2019] https://www.bmj.com/content/364/bmj.l920
4Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, JAMA Internal Medicine, Validation of the Instant Blood Pressure Smartphone App, [accessed September, 2019] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4922794/

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Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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