Pew study analysis offers promise for mHealth sector

A well-conducted survey on the use of cellphones for healthcare has just been released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The study was conducted in August-September of 2012. I will review some of the major and more interesting statistics from the study then discuss my views on them as well as the opportunities the survey presents for the mHealth app sector.

According to the survey, 85 percent of adults in the USA own cellphones, and 53 percent of these own smartphones (representing 45 percent of all adults surveyed). In 2010 17 percent of cellphone owners used their phones to research health or medical information online. This rose to 31 percent at the time of this survey, with the vast majority of those being smartphone owners.  In all, 42 percent of 18-29 year-olds, 39 percent of 30-49 year-olds, 19 percent of 50-64 year-olds and 9 percent of those over 64 used their phones for mHealth purposes. Hispanics had the highest relative use of phones to look up health or medical information (38 percent), with African-American and white use at 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Positive correlations were seen for annual income and education levels, with significant thresholds at $50,000 and having at least a high school diploma respectively.

Caregivers, those without chronic medical conditions and those with a recent change in medical condition had a significantly higher use of cellphones to acquire health information. Only 9 percent of cellphone owners receive health-related text messages or alerts. Caregivers, those with chronic conditions and those with significant changes in health were more apt to receive text messages or alerts.

According to the survey 19 percent of smartphone owners have downloaded a health app. The typical health app downloader is a better-educated woman under 50 with a household income of more than $75,000. Of those who have downloaded health apps, a significant factor was a recent change in health condition. Exercise, diet and weight apps were most popular.

This survey indicates to me that people are discovering the potential of smartphones for obtaining health information and for potential uses of mobile health apps. The growth of smartphone use in general has no doubt been the biggest driver of this. This survey does not do any sub-analysis. It is noteworthy, however to see the previously observed gender difference in the utilization of healthcare IT is carried over to health-related online searches using cell phones.

The paucity of text-related messages and alerts (which constitute the backbone of mHealth in underdeveloped countries) is interesting. I believe this reflects the immaturity of mHealth in general in the USA. Text messaging has been found to be effective in medication adherence for TB and HIV, for prenatal care and other uses in Africa. The industry needs to walk before it runs. Text messaging initiatives have already begun via the NIH (text4baby, quitnow). The mobile health and medical apps sector might benefit from using or partnering with text messaging platforms in the wellness or preventive health areas to acclimate users to the concept of mHealth before the introduction of more complex technologies (which can, in parallel be initiated at points of care in the healthcare system). Some start-ups are realizing the potential of text messaging mHealth offerings.

The survey discussed here is important because it demonstrates what people intuitively know: That there is a huge market for mHealth. We just have to provide the best ways to promote and foster adoption. THAT is the Holy Grail of mHealth at this time. Educating consumers/patients and providers, furnishing efficacy studies (which need not be as complex as drug or device clinical trials), getting payers on board (including federal and state) to pay for effective technologies and obtaining private investment are all prerequisites. These need to be conquered, relinquishing the “Build it and they will come" mentality. Let’s get going.

David Lee Scher is a former cardiac electrophysiologist and is an independent consultant and owner/director at DLS Healthcare Consulting, LLC, (www.digitalhealthconsultants.com) concentrating in advising digital health companies and their partnering institutions, providers and businesses. A pioneer adopter of remote cardiac monitoring, he lectures worldwide promoting the benefits of digital health technologies. Twitter: @dlschermd, He also blogs at http://davidleescher.com. He was cited as one of the 10 cardiologists to follow on Twitter and one of the top ten blogs on healthcare technology.