The Doctor in your Pocket

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, meeting place of all that is new and shiny in the mobile business, gave unexpected attention to the subject of mobile healthcare.   As well as announcements by the GSMA Development Fund and UN Foundation on the progress that is happening in the developing world, the GSM Association also hosted a panel session on mHealth, which I was fortunate enough to moderate.

Alongside me were David Neale of  Telus and  Brian O’Connor of the European Connected Health Campus. Both are pioneers in mobile health and excellent advocates for the subject.  The biggest question we all had, which we posed to the networks and service providers is “why aren’t you doing it?”  The examples shown by the GSMA’s “Doctor in your Pocket” report show that mobile phones can play a persuasive part in healthcare.  Yet network operators in the West constantly reject health applications in favour of content.  It doesn’t need to be like that.

Telus is a good example of how mHealth can work.  Telus is a Canadian mobile network operator that made a commitment to healthcare when they acquired Emergis at the beginning of 2008.  Emergis was an IT company that had developed a successful Electronic Health Record solution, managing patient data.  There’s a lot of evidence that patients would benefit from access to their health records, as it allows them to start to become the centre of their own healthcare, rather than the traditional approach where they need to visit the medical clinic to find out about themselves. 

Researchers from the Californian Healthcare Association in 2008 questioned consumers about their attitude to being able to access their own medical data.  78% of respondents said that they would like to be able to access it online, whereas only 6% were currently able to.  Of more interest to companies like Telus is the assertion that 26% of respondents would be happy to pay for this access.  Obviously the number of patients who would actually pay needs to be confirmed by reality, but it indicates that there is a ready appetite for control of what most of us consider is “our” information, not our doctor’s.

As a result of acquiring Emergis, Telus have been able to offer a range of health services to customers via their mobiles. These include basic scheduling, as well as supporting clinical interventions and programs.  At the end of 2008, they were named the Health Company of the year by the Information Technology Association of Canada.  That’s an impressive achievement in les than twelve months.  In the coming years, they’re looking to extend their applications to include interventions in addiction, depression, management of diabetes, fitness, weight and medication compliance.

It’s a good example of what can be achieved in a very short time.  In Telus’ case, access to the Electronic Health records has been a key feature of their rapid product introduction.  Brian O’Connor illustrated a parallel approach.

Brian has been involved in delivering and running healthcare services for many years.  Last year he decided to utilise his considerable practical experience to enable change in the healthcare market by setting up the European Connected Health Campus in Belfast.  Their goal is to deliver leadership in the development of connected health markets and practice across Europe.  It’s a big aim, but there’s a big problem to be solved.  Today the world spends around 10% of its GDP on healthcare (closer to 20% in the US) and that is growing.  Over 90% of that expenditure is targeted at just 20% of the world’s population.  Demographics will make those figures worse unless we make fundamental changes to the way we deliver healthcare.

To start the process, the Campus is co-ordinating Europe’s largest single project for connected health, which is committing £45 million to monitor over five thousand people for the next three years.  Calls have been made for partners in these programs, which have attracted a surprising and positive number of participants.  The centre officially opens on the 23rd March and promises to be a real force in moving connected health forward.

With the emphasis on mHealth from the GSMA it would be nice to say that it was reflected in the offerings of the exhibitors.  Unfortunately that was not the case.  I can’t claim to have made a comprehensive survey of every exhibitor in Barcelona, but I only came across three mentions of the word Health as I walked around the eight halls.  And one of those was on the First Aid room.  Application developers and perhaps most importantly network operators need to understand the opportunity and start to address it.  At the moment, too many seem ready to find excuses for not pursing health. 

At the end of the session I posed the dual questions of how many members of the audience had changed their handsets in the last three years and how many had changed their doctor in the same period?  Not surprisingly most people have a lot more loyalty towards their doctor.  Maybe that’s a valuable lesson that could start to help the mobile operators re-engage with mHealth.  Even if the initial benefit to the mobile operators is only a reduction in churn, it could be the first step to giving patients control of their own health and developing a rich range of mHealth offerings.