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Weekly Trend: Mobile Health’s Tug-of-War

The mobile health industry is caught in a game of tug-of-war. While consumers, health professionals and startups who find great promise in mobile health technology pull on one side of the rope, an increasing number of concerned consumers and physicians are pulling on the other side.

As 1776 reported earlier this month, the mobile health industry, or mHealth, has quickly grown from one that allowed consumers to track steps and calories to one that uses “hyper-sensitive devices designed to track bodily functions beyond calories in and out.”

According to a report by Research2Guidance, “500 million smartphone users worldwide will be using a health care application by 2015, and by 2018, 50 percent of the more than 3.4 billion smartphone and tablet users will have downloaded mobile health applications.”

And while the numbers seem to indicate soaring popularity, many still have serious reservations. Patty Mechal, the former executive director of mHealth Alliance, said that there are “unrealistic expectations” as to how the industry will progress.

“We are somewhere between the peak of the hype cycle and the trough of disillusionment,” she said.

So where is the disillusionment coming from?

“Enthusiasm has been slow to build in part because the technology is often still not perfect, with seemingly simple functions like step counters lacking precision,” an MIT Technology Review article said. “Another problem is motivation. Many people simply don’t seem to like using these apps and devices.”

Aside from consumer inconsistency, another major concern is the level of privacy and security that mHealth apps provide. According to a survey by IDG Connect, “The biggest problem in health care relative to other industries seems to be with mobile device security.” Echoing that, a report from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse revealed that mobile app consumers can’t assume that their data, including sensitive health information, is private or that it isn’t being shared with advertisers and other third parties.

Kevin Pho is one of the doctors who has reservations about privacy, among other things.

“Despite the popularity and promise of these apps, I’m not yet ready to ‘prescribe’ them to my patients,” he said.

In a USA Today column, Pho cited the danger of misdiagnoses, a lack of scientific evidence and a lack of doctor involvement as some of his other concerns. While acknowledging the potentially promising future of mHealth, he urged the industry to take more time to develop safe and effective technology.

“Only then will more physicians recommend them to patients and the true potential of health apps be realized,” he said.

Katie Thompson

Katie is the editor of Shared Justice, an online journal for millennials published by the Center for Public Justice. A proud native of New Jersey, she now resides in Washington,…