Affordable mobile devices, access to wireless networks in much of the world, more mobile lifestyles, and the demand from employers for increased availability of workers are changing the world. Human performance receives significant support through mobile devices, including training, management, guidance, and reference material. But the benefits of mobile technology go far beyond work and entertainment.
One of the fastest-growing areas of mobile technology application is health, so much so that GSMA (the Association of the Groupe Spéciale Mobile) refers to this area as “mHealth.” The GSMA recently commissioned a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to assess the potential of the mHealth market. In the report of the findings, PwC predicted that mHealth will be worth $23 billion by 2017.
Because mHealth embraces all ages, all continents, and people in various walks of life, it is a perfect subject to explore for learning and development opportunities. Furthermore, if you are a mobile developer looking for a new market, mHealth should be on your target list. This article will provide some extra options to dive into.
Let’s begin by looking at mHealth overall.
Why is mHealth growing so fast?
Health training and education as well as healthcare practices have always been at the leading edge of technology application. There is already a large amount of medical technology in use: everything from pacemakers and monitors that a patient wears or uses at home to monitor glucose or sleep apnea, for instance, to oximeters and vital sign monitors used in the hospital.
This trend has created a drive towards additional technologies for healthcare consumers, supporting wellness, prevention, and compliance with treatment protocols. It has also created a demand for technology use that will strengthen healthcare systems and improve delivery of care, including performance support, training, and continuing professional education for healthcare practitioners and primary care providers.
The GSMA-PwC study cites some significant benefits that mobile health solutions promise when properly designed and implemented. These include:
- Reduced costs for existing healthcare systems
- Delivery of better care at lower cost to the patient
- Empowerment of patients to take greater ownership of their health
- Expanded access to healthcare services
- Support for improved healthcare outcomes
There are many important applications in specific situations for mobile health solutions. For example, optimizing emergency interventions in war-torn areas, support for people with chronic diseases, and improved diagnosis and monitoring of diseases for individuals and for whole regions.
The market continues to expand because mobile platforms and technologies are ideally suited for health-related applications and are ready for personal and professional deployment outside clinics and all across the globe.
mHealth diversity and requirements
These opportunities come with challenges for instructional designers, mLearning strategists, and training managers. However, there are some requirements that must be in place for mHealth strategies to be possible and to succeed. No matter what region, no matter what type of Internet-enabled mobile devices, two core elements are an absolute necessity:
- Internet connectivity
- Ubiquitous access to information
Given those, you still need to arrange for:
- Secure data handling (health privacy issues)
- Mobile-enabled content design (web or native applications)
- Social networking options (healthcare workers, patients, or health enthusiasts to exchange information and knowledge with each other)
- Training on the use of the technology
Options and opportunities for mHealth applications
There are specialized mHealth needs where portable, customizable, and affordable mobile devices are a perfect fit to enhance training and overall healthcare management. It would seem likely that every mobile developer can find a suitable mHealth niche in which to leverage their expertise.
Mehran Mehregany and Enrique Saldivar (2012) list a wonderful set of mHealth options. Any of these areas might fit your development skills or mLearning experience (Table 1). At the end of the table I have added the category of “personal well-being” to make the picture complete. Finally, in order to give an idea of the mHealth learning options, I added some examples next to each category.
Possibilities for development
Education and awareness
Use of mobile devices to raise general health awareness in patients/people.
Mobile content creation, mobile information dissemination.
Remote data collection
Gathering health data from a variety of regions through synchronization with a central database or HUB.
Building mobile surveys to collect data for secure synchronization.
Data input tools (e.g. surveys), synchronizing options, secure data transfer.
Following outpatient health status of patients (solutions to keep doctors in touch with patients: follow-up via SMS, social media).
Setting up a central mobile platform to enable healthcare providers to send questions to field specialists for difficult diagnoses.
Clear communications with the healthcare providers, enable sharing of multimedia, creating a safe mobile/ubiquitous information platform.
Communication and training for healthcare workers
Using mobile devices to provide latest health updates and share knowledge among healthcare providers (e.g., continuing medical education).
Building a ubiquitous learning platform that sends out short courses to alumni health students (this also reinforces the alumni network and strengthens educational institutes).
Clear learning strategy, a variety of content (big and small), social networking, setting up a variety of mobile communication channels.
Disease and epidemic outbreak
Live data streams that indicate how a disease is spreading, at what speed and across which regions.
Crowdsourcing disease spread and responses to the disease.
Mobile data input platform that enables visualization of live data.
Diagnostic and treatment support
A first aid app for casualties.
Checklists for treatment.
Algorithm-based software that helps in diagnosing diseases.
Multimedia content, native apps, interactive, responsive software.
Diet follow-up to stay in shape.
Keeping track of personal workouts, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.
Native apps with social networking options. Multimedia with tips or cooking information.
When looking at Table 1, one can see that the biggest advantage of mHealth is its continuous interactions. Because of the continuity it can provide it has become much easier to maintain a high quality of care and act upon any emergency indicated by the mHealth-provided data. This has an enormous effect on prolonging healthy lives, which reduces the health cost for patients.
For example, remote monitoring technologies could save as much as $197 billion over the next 25 years in the United States (West, 2012), which makes it an interesting investment to look at. But in order to guarantee continuity, every mHealth solution needs to be fully tested and needs to cater to a variety of mobile devices to ensure durability.
Planning an mHealth implementation
GSMA has released a report on mHealth US end users, looking at beliefs, barriers, success factors, and possible recommendations. As mHealth has a lot of stakeholders (the healthcare industry itself, patients, healthcare providers, mobile operators, mobile solution developers, governments and other regulatory bodies, insurers), building an overall solution is still a difficult task for any designer or mobile project manager.
Embedding mobile devices in the overall training strategy multiplies the efficiency and especially the scope of health monitoring. Putting mHealth into place within an institute is very similar to planning the use of mobile devices for training in other areas, both academic and corporate, to wit:
- Build a strategic plan, supported by IT guidelines (security and privacy, architecture…), to embed mobile health in existing structures
- Ensure provision of ethical guidelines on the use of mobile devices and mobile content
- Set up a central database that allows analysis of medical data gathered via mobile devices
- Provide a ubiquitous content platform that is, above all, user-friendly (one button access and overview)
- Incorporate a peer-to-peer and expert-to-learner dynamic to strengthen all personnel via knowledge exchange
- Offer a mixture of content: large as well as bite-size content ready and available for both just-in-time and at-your-convenience access
- Integrate mobile digital skills training that is repeated and offered in small chunks, thus enabling personnel to become accustomed to both the device and the benefits of mHealth
- Plan quick design iterations to keep everyone motivated and ensure a smooth user experience
Due to infrastructure realities in developing regions, there are some specific aspects you need to take into account when planning or developing an mHealth project:
- Make sure that you use mobile software that is accessible both on- and offline. Whichever mobile solution you want to use will have to be able to run in both connected and unconnected areas.
- Look for survey tools that cater to a wide set of devices and that can be tailored to specific demands or algorithms used in the survey.
- Use tools that sense when to synchronize as soon as the mobile devices enter a zone where connectivity is working.
- While using synchronization, you must make sure to use securely encrypted data streams.
- The chosen devices must also be able to withstand possible harsh climate conditions (heat and/or cold resistant, a screen that you can read in bright sunlight).
- Always be prepared for power failure. Use solar panels for alternative energy.
- Make sure the project is scalable and durable. It is good to set up an mHealth project in developing regions, but once your part of the work is done, the project itself must be able to stand on its own (spare parts, cost of devices, data cost for the users…).
- Consider regional data costs when drawing up a plan. Is it affordable for the users of that region?
- Analyze the need for multi-user leveling: Which stakeholders are part of the project? (e.g., patients, healthcare personnel, project managers: Three levels of mobile information workflows might be needed).
Striving towards a happy life
Although mHealth demands an investment in technology and in human capacity, in the end it reduces costs and increases quality of life for all. The return for getting involved in such projects is very rewarding, for it changes the lives of millions of people.
As the population in Europe and North America gets older, and as the population in the developing world continues to grow, health becomes all the more crucial for sustained, happy living. Luckily, mobility is all around us and we, as developers and training managers, can make a difference in achieving this goal. Optimized health quality is always something to strive for!
References and interesting reading
GSMA and PwC. “Touching Lives through Mobile Health: Assessment of the Global Market Opportunity.” 2012. Retrievable via the web at http://www.gsma.com/connectedliving/gsma-pwc-report-touching-lives-through-mobile-health-assessment-of-the-global-market-opportunity
GSMA. “GSMA Improving the Evidence for Mobile Health.” 2012. Report retrievable from the web at http://www.gsma.com/connectedliving/gsma-improving-the-evidence-for-mobile-health/
Mehregany, M, & Saldivar, E. “Opportunities and Obstacles in the Adoption of mHealth.” R. Crohn & D. Metcalf (Eds.). mHealth from Smartphones to Smart Systems. HIMSS, Chicago, USA. 2012. Retrievable via the web at http://www.mhimss.org/sites/default/files/resource-media/pdf/CHAPTER%202_mHealth.pdf
West, D. “How Mobile Devices are Transform Healthcare.” Issues in Technological Innovation, May 2012, 18. Retrievable via the web at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/5/22%20mobile%20health%20west/22%20mobile%20health%20west.pdf
World Bank and InfoDev. “Maximizing Mobile.” 2012. IC4D report. Retrievable via the web at http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTINFORMATIONANDCOMMUNICATIONANDTECHNOLOGIES/0,,contentMDK:23190786~pagePK:210058~piPK:210062~theSitePK:282823,00.html