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Smartphones and Healthcare: Patients Benefit, But Who Has the Most to Lose From mHealth Innovations?

Posted on : 08-02-2012 | By : Akiva Zablocki | In : Health, mHealth, New Tech

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In Fast Company Magazine’s February issue there is article titled “As Smartphones Get Smarter, You May Get Healthier: How mHealth Can Bring Cheaper Health Care To All.” The piece, by Adam Bluestein, is a survey of the new disruptive innovations in the mHealth market that can potentially replace large, clunky, and expensive medical devices with small, elegant, and low-cost Smartphone accessories. The article touches briefly on one of the main challenges mHealth faces as it aims to grow its chunk of the $273 billion medical device industry from its current $2 billion market share.  As mentioned in the article: “At stake is the future of health care–and a share of the $273 billion medical-device industry, which is dominated by the likes of GE and Philips.” What is obvious here is that GE and Philips will not be happy with disruption from the startups which have the potential to replace their high cost devices. One of the biggest setbacks for innovation would be if these larger companies use their millions in cash reserve to lobby Congress to create more regulations that can potentially stall the influx of these new cheaper devices. As Bluestein discusses in the article, the “clunky-looking device eye doctors use to pinpoint your prescription–weighs about 40 pounds, costs $10,000” – and can be replaced by a similar functioning $30 accessory that can attach to your iPhone.

Two other forces that can potentially prevent this disruptive market from developing and benefiting consumers are healthcare providers (i.e., hospitals, medical centers and large practices) and outdated laws and regulations.  Hospitals spend millions of dollars on advanced diagnostic and treatment devices. These hospitals need to recoup the costs by charging consumers (patients) to use these devices. It can take many years to pay off a new MRI or radiation machine and hospitals need the physicians to continue ordering the tests and treatments. I doubt we will see small MRI or radiation iPhone add-ons anytime soon, but the general rule applies to all the high-cost medical devices. Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the Medical Arms Race going on between hospitals who all want a $150M proton beam therapy machine. Despite the fact that this machine provides only a marginal benefit for most patients, as soon as one hospital buys a machine, all the others in the city feel the need to buy one as well in order to remain competitive. This leads to years of more expensive bills for patients, with only marginal better outcomes. Hospitals will have a lot to lose if new innovative devices bypass the need for their high cost devices. Simply put, if a patient can spend $50 at home instead of $1000 at the hospital, the hospital is going to need to a new way to pay their bills. For this reason, it is likely that hospitals will be at the forefront of lobbying efforts to discredit these new, cheap, innovative devices. Additionally, there might be an issue of reimbursement for physician’s time as office visit payments are reduced when patients no longer need to come in for various test.

Lastly, outdated HIPAA laws could prevent a lot of the usefulness of these new mHealth Smartphone accessories. It will be an amazing achievement in medical science when a patient with a heart problem can buy a $30 hearth monitor accessory and monitor their heart from home.  However, getting that data back to the physician will turn out to be tricky. With the current laws, a physician might have to ask the patient to print the data and fax (yes, fax!) the data over to the physician’s office.  This is because HIPAA requires secure methods of transferring medical information, and most intuitive ways of connecting patients to doctors are not secure enough (i.e., email).

While these new innovations are a blessing, and the disruptive result can be a benefit to all healthcare consumers, there is much need to do more on the regulatory side to assist these innovations. HIPAA needs to be updated and reformed, taking into account new technologies as well as societal changes (like social media) as well as making sure the potential losses for the big companies and medical centers) do not prevent these innovations from coming to market.

What mHealth innovation would you like to see coming to your Smartphone soon?

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