AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog

Will Mobile Technology Help Close The Digital Divide?

A recent study is revealing that patients using telemedicine are more likely to be urban and well educated. Based on data from 53,000 households collected by the Census Bureau in July 2011, the report found 8 percent of urban Internet users took part in telemedicine initiatives, compared with 4 percent in rural areas. That stands in contrast to telemedicine’s common selling point that it can more effectively and conveniently provide services to people in remote locations.

Participants were also found to be wealthier.  At income levels of $100,000 or more, 11 percent of Internet users took part in remote care, compared 4 percent from households in the under $25,000 bracket.  The 25-44 age group was found to be the most likely segment using online services for medical care and information.

As access to telemedicine opportunities continue to grow it is expected that the demographics will likely shift to include lower-income and less-educated patients.  One technology that may improve access to telehealth services is the mobile or smart phone devices which appear to be closing the digital divide among various demographic segments of the population. Mobile technology has become especially critical for low-income minorities who have no other technological means of connecting to the internet.

Survey results released in September by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project indicate that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to own a smartphone, with 49 percent of Hispanics, 47 percent of African Americans, and 42 percent of whites owning these mobile devices.  For these groups, mHealth has the potential to be a powerful tool in promoting healthy living and preventive medicine, particularly in combating the high rates of diabetes in these populations.

Development of new and innovative health related mobile applications and growing the number of smart phones in the hands of the more economically challenged population promises to be an effective means to bridging the healthcare gap in America. Health and Human Services (HHS) has called on developers to create a mobile application to help educate minorities and women about cancer screenings and allow secure access to medical records.

Only time will reveal whether telemedicine’s promising benefits of increased access and lower cost of quality medical care will better attract and reach those who are most in need.

Healthcare, Anywhere

For rapid access to information from anywhere at anytime, nothing beats a smartphone or other mobile device. The widespread use of these devices sets the stage for rapid growth in mobile health (mHealth) applications to improve patient care.  In 2011, smartphones accounted for more than half of all phone sales in the United States, and there are now over 12,000 health-related apps on the iTunes store alone. There is immense theoretical value, but how is mHealth being used by patients and physicians in the real world?

The first generation apps available now provide rapid access to information previously available from far more specific resources. Common conditions like hypertension, diabetes and headache have apps that allow patients to conveniently collect and trend data about their condition. iHeadache and Seizure Log allow patients to look for triggers to these events; Seizure Log can even embed videos of events. Neuro Toolkit provides key protocols and scales that neurologists use routinely in the hospital, frequently saving them a trip to the library or internet. Practical mHealth apps do not necessarily need to be brilliant to be helpful. The value is in the unparalleled level of accessibility that they offer.

In her speech at the annual mHealth summit in December, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius described mHealth as “opening up new lines of communications between patients and their doctors, among health care providers trying to stay on the same page and even among communities of patients.”  She mentioned iTriage, an app that helps patients document their symptoms and find a nearby emergency room.

Of course, apps that aid patients and doctors alike are a very positive force in healthcare, but must continue to be improved. iTriage, for example, would benefit by including which hospitals are certified for acute stroke and heart attack treatment by the Joint Commission. If a patient does need emergency treatment for one of these or other conditions, the chance of getting the fastest and most complete care are increased at the most capable facility.

The next generation of apps will move beyond data collection and collation.  Smartphone trends for 2012 include larger screens, faster processing and more apps, all of which bode well for more robust medical applications. With the advances, mHealth is likely to continue to revolutionize access for patients and physicians.