Rozina Ali | June 25th 2012 | @Healthcare
Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, depression and cancer, are on the rise globally. The good news is that an increasing number of people with these conditions are able to make use of one or more of a growing suite of smartphone apps—there are already more than 100—designed to help them manage their conditions. Yet there is one vital link missing between the technology and healthcare. Most doctors—mine included—do not recommend health apps to their patients.
That might not be much of a surprise. The use of mobile technology—or mHealth, as it is now widely known—in healthcare has the potential to partly replace doctors and disrupt current patient-doctor relationships. With mHealth, patients can monitor their conditions without close supervision of doctors, access electronic sources of information or even consult practitioners from miles away. But doctors are not the only barriers to adoption—unclear regulations and complex and disparate healthcare structures stand in the way as well.
The healthcare sector already makes extensive use of a whole range of technologies. With patients demanding greater levels of personalised care, it is hard to imagine that the healthcare sector can resist mHealth for long. The pressure grows daily as a result of rising healthcare costs, increasing numbers of deaths from chronic diseases (now the leading cause of death and disability globally) and limited resources worldwide. Do countries recognise the benefits mHealth can provide to alleviate some of these pressures?
Some do, according to a new study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by PwC. The EIU conducted surveys of patients, doctors and payers to assess the potential for adoption of mHealth across ten countries: Brazil, China, Denmark, Germany, India, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US. What we found was that emerging markets are leading the way, actively demanding and encouraging the use of mHealth. Nearly 60% of emerging-market patients use at least one mHealth application or service, compared with 35% in the developed world. And nearly 70% of doctors and payers in emerging markets recommend patients use mHealth, compared with 60% in developed countries.
What is driving the adoption of mHealth in these countries is increased demand for the benefits it provides. Emerging markets see mHealth as a way to reduce costs of care and provide access to basic services to more people. Unsurprisingly, patients from all surveyed countries see the potential advantages as well. Nearly half expect mHealth to improve convenience, cost and quality of their healthcare in the next three years.
But doctors, overall, are not on board. They may adopt mHealth, but only insofar as it helps them ease administrative headaches. In fact, according to our survey, 42% worry that mHealth will make patients too independent.
In a way, this attitude seems absurd. Aren’t doctors meant to put patients first? Yes, but doctors also believe in their ability to care for the patient best. Eric Dishman, director of health innovation at Intel, puts it best when he told us for the report that “mHealth is about fundamentally changing the social contract between patients and doctors. It will take time.”
What doctors may be overlooking is that the epidemic of chronic diseases means that care is no longer simply about going to a doctor to put a bandage on a wound. Patients must be active about monitoring their own long-term conditions. MHealth potentially could do what doctors have been unable to do thus far: encourage a greater focus on preventive care among patients. For an industry that is increasingly straining at the seams, financially and structurally, time is running out. Healthcare may need to revisit that social contract sooner rather than later.