The March 2014 launch of the Samsung Galaxy S5, with its ECG heart monitor and other vital sign monitoring features in the S Health app suite, triggered heightened awareness in the mobile health (mHealth) movement for many in the medical profession. Real-time smartphone health monitoring has already been underway for several years in Europe and Australia and other remote parts of the world. With FDA 510 (k) clearance that allows apps like S Health, iPhone ECG, and others to legally transmit ECGs to healthcare providers in the U.S., the mHealth industry kicked into high gear in anticipation of market growth for medical tracking smartphones.
“History will show that the mobile phone will be one of the most profound influences for improving public health ever invented,” Dr. Kevin Patrick, director of UC San Diego’s Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems, told the LA Times.
The FDA has eased its regulation of certain health devices this year as well, another factor in the wider adoption of smartphones and smartphone accessories in a healthcare setting. In fact, in a 12-page document issued Aug. 1, the FDA proposed exemptions for a number of devices, such as thermometers, stethoscopes, glucometers, and pedometers, that interface with smartphones. Analysts predict the mHealth smartphone accessory market to reach $3 billion within five years. Here are a few items we are watching in connection with this emerging boom.
Phone-based medicine brings clinical procedures into the home. Heart rate monitors and glucometers that connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth technology have been on the market for several years now. We will see these items grow more sophisticated, extending clinical capabilities into the comfort of our homes. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that nearly half of MDs said they would use a urinalysis device to prescribe medication or decide whether an office visit is needed. There are several such devices out on the market already. A company that’s leading the charge is Biosense, and their uChek portable diagnostic system.
Apple HealthKit is picking up steam. The iOS8-based fitness tracking software development kit (SDK) had a slow start, but has momentum heading into 2015. Large healthcare institutions—including some big-time notables like Duke Medicine—have become early adopters. Key features thus far include integration of the popular Epic MyChart EHR (electronic health records), which helps track patient encounters in a secure, paperless manner. Apple’s competitors will have their eye on Samsungs’s S Health and Google Fit; the latter just launched a big update that added more than 100 apps this month.
Seeking a validation processes for mHealth apps. The number of mHealth apps for iOS and Android has more than doubled in the last two and a half years, with more than 100,000 health-related apps already available. The market is still very much shaking out. Validation is a challenge for practitioners and patients looking to vet the huge pool of apps to choose from. Peer reviews—a popular methodology in health care—might be the way. The Journal of Medical Internet Research has launched a peer review process that offers developers expert evaluations, but at a cost of $2,500 per app, which has some in the industry skeptical of its merits. We will see how this plays out.
Will smartphones push wearables into obsolescence? Fitness trackers were a hot item in 2014, but smartphone makers have begun to build in similar features to new devices. Some analysts predict that this redundancy may lead to the eventual extinction of wearables. Who wants to manage two or three devices when you can do the same with one?
These are truly exciting times for health, medicine and technology. The evolution of mHealth is poised to be a top tech story moving into the new year, and one on which we will be keeping a close watch.