Med-e-Tel sees mHealth emerging worldwide

By Jack Beaudoin
04:49 AM

What healthcare needs now is a daily dose of vitamin M.

That's "m" as in mobile, and at least the faithful gathered at the 2010 Med-e-Tel conference believe that the confluence of mobile technology and healthcare – mHealth – could have as profound an effect on medicine as the stethoscope.

"This mHealth is a little confusing to me," admitted Leonid Androuchko, professor of telecommunications at the International University of Geneva and a coordinator for telehealth with the International Telecommunication Union. "But we will get a title for this soon, and it will be the right one."

Androuchko was the principal organizer of a Med-e-Tel session on mobile health technologies that was attended by a standing room-only crowd representing 53 countries around the world.

He described the current state of mHealth projects as a "creative mess," in which research teams are pursuing their own agendas without coordination. "We have seen several projects in the same country, covering the same ground, that are not communicating with each other," Androuchko said. "We could be missing some real benefits."

Among the projects reported at Med-e-Tel so far: an mHealth technology that sustains independent living for senior citizens on Cyprus; a support program for pain management in patients with fibromyalgia in Madrid; a replicable "suitcase" of mobile health technologies in France; and mobile hospitals on wheels in India.

"Mobile health is proliferating," said Claudia Tessier of the mHealth Initiative, based in Boston. "There are thousands of devices and thousands of applications. These are changing healthcare provision from an occasional visit to continuous care, from passive patients to active participatory ones."

But she observed that mHealth will remain on the periphery of healthcare until a variety of hurdles can be overcome. Local, state and national laws can stifle innovation, as can the policies of healthcare providers. One example: Hospitals have long banned mobile telephones, first over interference concerns and, more recently, over fears that built-in cameras could violate patient privacy. Such efforts to control mobile health invariably undermine its transformative nature, she said.

Tessier also said many issues remain to be worked out – privacy, security, authentication, data management, to name just a few – if mHealth is to revolutionize healthcare. "But let me repeat this," she said. "The benefits outweigh the risks."

That's already been proven in India, said Krishnan Ganapathy, president of the Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation and co-founder of the Telemedicine Society of India. He got started by investigating the use of 3G networks to deliver healthcare to villages where landlines didn't yet exist. The pilot project was so successful that he's rolling out new programs not only in rural India, but in Bangladesh and Bhutan as well.

Ganapathy said that while the West may dampen mHealth until all the policies and standards are in place, the developing world will adopt enabling technology first and figure out the rules later. He noted that a simple $5 camera, connected to a 3G network, could improve early detection of oral cancer, saving thousands of lives each year. "I'm frustrated," he said. "I can order pizza on my mobile phone but I can't manage my health?"

Given the clear and immediate benefits of mHealth, the developing world is already adopting it. "We are not piggybacking on the West, we are leap-frogging it," Ganapathy said. "And I'm not sorry to say we're leap-frogging far ahead."

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