Mobiles and medicine: The brave new world of mHealth

Story highlights

  • Mobile communications technology could become integral to healthcare
  • There are more than 300 medical applications for mobile technology currently in use
  • Mobile monitoring of the elderly and chronically ill can ease the strain on health systems

AT&T and Vodafone are names we generally associate with calling plans rather than with healthcare. But with the rise of "mobile health" -- the use of mobile communications technology in healthcare -- some of the world's best-known telecoms brands are partnering with health-sector companies to enter the medical fray.

"MHealth," as it is known, has moved beyond a mere buzzword and now stands at a tipping point, say backers.

According to recent analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the GSM Association, an industry body representing nearly 800 of the world's mobile operators in 219 countries, mobile-enabled services will become integral to healthcare delivery by 2017, creating a global market worth about $23 billion.

GSM estimates there are more than 320 different medical applications of mobile technology currently in use around the world,

MHealth has arisen as a response to a number of pressures facing healthcare systems around the world, says Jeanine Vos, executive director of mHealth at the GSM Association.

She says in the developed world, ageing populations and rising rates of chronic disease are burdening overstretched health systems, coinciding with a desire from patients to take "a more active role in their health." Mobile is particularly good at monitoring patients, giving them scope to independently manage their health, and allowing for more efficient handling of patient data, she adds.

A different situation exists in the developing world, where a shortage of health services is a major issue. By making medical services more portable and accessible, Vos says mobile technology could play an important role in bringing healthcare to remote, underserviced areas.

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So just how is mobile tech changing healthcare provision? Below are a handful of the most innovative mHealth initiatives:

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AT&T Vitality GlowCaps: Simply put, these pill bottles tell you when it's time to take your medicine. With patients' failure to take their prescribed medicine a major headache for healthcare providers, these medicine bottle caps use embedded mobile technology to encourage patients to stick to their prescription routine.

When it's time for a pill, the caps illuminate, play ringtones, then progress to calling or texting the patient's mobile phone to remind them. A record is made of every time the pill bottle is opened, which is periodically transmitted to nominated medical staff or family members to monitor the patients' adherence to their treatment regime.

Mobisante MobiUS SP1 Ultrasound System: Ultrasound imaging is a vital diagnostic tool that can save lives, yet an estimated 70% of the world's population, especially patients in developing countries, does not have access to the technology.

This device -- a mobile ultrasound probe which plugs into a smartphone -- allows for handheld ultrasound imaging, enabling the technology to reach rural areas in developing countries which may be far from clinics with a conventional ultrasound machine. For a second opinion, or remote diagnosis, the scan images can be transmitted via cell network or WiFi.

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Telenor home monitoring trial: This trial in Norway used embedded mobile technology -- a concept encapsulated in the phrase "the internet of things," in which machines and devices communicate wirelessly -- to support the elderly in living independently by using sensors in the home to monitor for signs of distress or illness.

The array of machine-to-machine (M2M) technology included a fall detector, an electronic pill dispenser, a moisture sensor for bed linen, an epilepsy alarm, and a GPS location detector. Once an alarm was triggered, healthcare providers would be notified by text.

SIMAP (Intelligent Personal Alert Monitoring System): This project involving Vodafone and the Spanish Red Cross is designed to give Alzheimer's sufferers confidence to live independently. The system equips the patient with a mobile device with a GPS receiver, which logs its position every three minutes. The device can be set to trigger an alert if the patient moves beyond a pre-defined geographic area.

Dexcom Seven Plus Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) system: For diabetics, monitoring glucose levels can be a cumbersome process, often involving keeping paper records of readings which are then passed on to doctors. This device features a sensor implanted under the skin to provide a continuous reading of glucose levels -- monitoring the response to medication and activities. The sensor transmits blood sugar measurements to a cellphone-sized receiver every five minutes.

The sensor can be worn for up to seven days at a time, sounds an alarm when glucose levels drop to a certain threshold, and allows for trend data to be transmitted to a computer for analysis. Although it's not a true mobile device, it's a great example of how wireless technology could revolutionize healthcare.