mHealth, a term used for health services and information that are supported by mobile devices such as mobile phones, tablet computers and PDAs, showed significant growth in 2011.

This year, the mHealth app market is expected to nearly double. The use of mobile devices offers many benefits such as conveniently collecting community and clinical health data, easy delivery of health care information to practitioners, researchers, and patients, as well as real-time monitoring of patient vital signs and direct provision of care.

mHealth is the perfect application for developing countries given the high penetration of mobile phones in those countries that often have populations that are otherwise very hard-to-reach. It can support the diagnosis and tracking of diseases in a timelier and more actionable way while providing access to on-going medical education and training for health workers. Taking into consideration all these benefits, it is no surprise that research2guidance predicts the smartphone application market for mobile health care to reach US$1.3 billion this year - up from US$718 million in 2011. In spite of this substantial growth, the mHealth market is still in its infancy given that the overall global health care market is worth US$6 trillion. What’s for sure is the fact that this can only grow with the ever growing market share that smartphones will achieve in the next couple of years.

research2guidance also expects that the increase in revenue will come from downloads, in-app advertisements, mHealth services, direct transactions and sensor sales, as a number of big health care companies have published mHealth apps in 2011 that go far beyond a simple allergy tracker or pill reminder (e.g. Sanofi Aventis’ sensor-based iBGStar Diabetes monitoring app). According to their Mobile Health Market Report 2011 – 2016, the number of mHealth application users – mobile users who downloaded a smartphone mHealth application at least once – will reach 247 million in 2012. This is almost double the 124 million users who downloaded mHealth smartphone applications in 2011.

Indeed, the motivation behind the development of mHealth is the fact that greater access to mobile phone technology can be leveraged to mitigate the numerous pressures faced by developing countries’ health care systems, namely:

  1. The rapid rise in mobile phone penetration in developing countries provides the potential to lower information and transaction costs in the delivery of health care;
  2. The numerous constraints faced by developing nation health care systems - high population growth, high burden of disease prevalence, few health care workforce resources, large numbers of rural inhabitants, and limited financial resources - to support health care infrastructure and health information systems;

According to a June 2011 World Health Organization report, higher-income countries show more mHealth activity than lower-income countries, which is consistent with the finding that countries in the European Region are currently the most active while those in the African Region are the least active. The report was the result of a mHealth survey module designed by researchers from the Earth Institute's Center for Global Health and Economic Development at Columbia University that also revealed that mHealth is most easily incorporated into processes and services which historically use voice communication through conventional telephone networks. However, the technical aspects of the health care landscape are changing rapidly, consistently driving the growth of health care data, the number of health care apps and their usage on mobile phones.

Smartphone technologies, especially, have the potential to open up doors for mHealth projects such as technology-based diagnosis support, remote diagnostics, telemedicine, web browsing, GPS navigation, access to web-based patient information, and decentralized health management information systems (HMIS). Increased availability and efficiency in both voice and data-transfer systems, in addition to rapid deployment of wireless infrastructure, will most likely accelerate even faster the deployment of mobile-enabled health systems and services throughout the world.

Beyond that, wireless-enabled laptops and specialized health-related software applications are being gradually developed, tested, and marketed for use in the mHealth field, strongly supported by free and open source software. Not to mention advances in capabilities such as integrating voice, video and Web 2.0 collaboration tools into mobile devices that achieve significant benefits in the delivery of health care services. New sensor technologies such as HD video and audio capabilities or GPS are able to enhance the methods of describing and studying cases, which includes diagnosis, education, treatment and monitoring.

Mobile communication technologies, overall, are tools that can be leveraged to support existing workflows within the health sector and between the health sector and the general public, catapulting mHealth into the forefront of the science and technology arena.

By Daniela La Marca