Time to nail down an mHealth definition

By Tom Sullivan
09:15 AM

Deep in the back offices of Silicon Valley startups and stalwarts, you won’t commonly encounter phrases like "automotive IT" or "plastic injection molding IT" – yet all through the healthcare industry, such vague-almost-to-the-point-of-confusing terms pepper the conversation.

The most egregious example, indeed, is "health IT". Is health IT just an EHR or even the market brimming with so many electronic health records systems and modules? No. Realistically, health IT comprises any number of the technologies, whether it’s low-cost practice management services in the cloud or big, iron-bound database management systems that huge health networks plunk down tens of millions of dollars to acquire and run themselves.

Every day we talk about health IT almost as if it is one single simple solution, rather than all the technologies taken together that a hospital needs to survive, if not thrive.

Is mHealth destined for the same ambiguous fate?

As of today three main terms reign: mHealth (of course), mobile health and mobile medical apps, the latter being not so much an entire marketscape but the phrase our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses to determine which, well, mHealth apps and devices to regulate and those to leave alone.

Whether the FDA's mobile medical apps phrase survives hardly matters to the larger conversation about mobile and mHealth. Are we talking about smartphone apps? Tablet hardware? Does telehealth fit under the mHealth umbrella, or vice versa? When will it all just be healthcare, anyway? And what of the rapidly expanding realm of borderline medical devices – products like glucometers that plug into smartphones?

Right now, mHealth is all of those, as well it should be. During a pre-panel conversation with four mHealth champions – I think it’s safe to describe them as such – that one speaker suggested and all pretty much agreed a good place to start their upcoming session at the HIMSS Media mHealth Summit would be by defining mHealth, because they were involved in high-level internal conversations focused on figuring out what is and is not mHealth so that, from there, they can better understand how to proceed, tech- and corporate policy-wise.

On Monday, December 9, at 7 a.m., in a session titled “The World in my Waiting Room,” the panelists – Jeffrey Benabio, director of healthcare transformation at Kaiser Permanente; Donald Kosiak, executive medical director at Avera eCARE; Wesley Valdes, medical director of telehealth services with Intermountain Healthcare; and Andrew Watson, executive director of UPMC’s Center for Connected Medicine – will convene, and defining mHealth is not the only matter they’ll discuss, of course, but it probably could be.

Whether mHealth will ultimately sprout more specific branches, both in terms of products and named categories, remains to be seen, but a clearer definition can only help.