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This year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas healthcare technology really took the centre stage. From wearable tech to mHealth and robot doctors, health and wellbeing tech has never featured like this before. Below, Professor Christopher James, Chair of the IEEE UKRI Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society (EMBS) Chapter and Professor of Healthcare Technology at the University of Warwick writes about the challenges and opportunities in this space.

A cursory glance at the coverage coming out of this year’s CES 2013 shows you that this year is going to be a big one for mobile health (mHealth) in all its forms. Whether we are talking wearable devices, apps to help you manage different conditions or glasses to deliver information to surgeons as they operate, mHealth has become a huge focus for technology companies, telcos and even pharmaceutical giants.

mHealth is a huge (and growing) category but an area that I am particularly interested in at the moment is the role that mobile devices – smartphones and tablets in particular – can have in help to deliver healthcare services to patients and the role they can have in helping them manage their own conditions more effectively. Organisations like Diabetes UK are leading the way in the development of applications that use existing mobile platforms to help people suffering from conditions (like diabetes) to have greater control over their own health. These kinds of apps not only help the sufferers but also the health service – helping to reduce the number of cases that require clinical treatment.

mHealth: Are we ready for it yet?

Apps such as these have huge potential and over the next few years we can expect to see developments across devices, applications and services delivering more innovation and improving services. This is driven not only by a patient’s desire to have more control but also by the significant cost and health benefits derived from being able to better treat patients in their homes and improve long term preventative care.

That said there are a number of key considerations that need to be recognised before mHealth can become as widespread as, for example, social media has become:

  • For mHealth to become ubiquitous technology will have to stabilise and smartphones will have to become far more widely used.  At present, the technology industry is in a state of flux – there continue to be significant changes to handsets and operating systems, as well as mobile infrastructure
  • It is the patients – those with most to gain from mHealth – who will be crucial to driving mHealth development.  Therefore, to win support of patients and ensure regular use, it is critical that developers put usability and data integration first
  • mHealth technology will never replace the need for in person, face-to-face interactions with clinicians.  However with time, and most importantly education, consultations on less acute conditions may be conducted remotely
  • Although concerns about security and privacy still exist, we are seeing a growing understanding among consumers of the possible benefits of mHealth and in many cases these benefits outweigh concerns
  • There are risks associated with mHealth too.  In a world of millions of mobile applications, there needs to be robust yet non-restrictive regulation to foster innovation.  It will be challenging to ensure that citizens use approved applications and to minimise the use of those applications that have not been certified as compliant with established regulations

Mobile devices used in healthcare

There is no doubt that the potential for mHealth and for healthcare technology in general is huge – not just for patients here in the developed world but, perhaps even more so, those in developing countries. If the challenges above can be met mHealth could prove to be almost as revolutionary as the internet itself.