The global market for mobile health (mHealth) technologies is among the fastest-growing areas for investment in the world. A decade ago, fewer than one quarter of adults in Europe or the United States owned a smartphone; today there are more than 3.5 billion daily smartphone users worldwide. In addition, 44 percent of U.S. consumers now use digital tools to track some aspect of their health, and 33 percent own a wearable health or wellness device. Over 318,000 health apps are available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play, with approximately 5 million being downloaded by new users every day.
As mHealth’s popularity skyrockets, connected medical devices and mobile apps are rapidly becoming part of mainstream healthcare. They’re increasingly being used to enable patient-clinician communications, to support patient self-management and remote monitoring, and to empower patients to play a more proactive role in their treatment. They’re helping clinicians make more data-driven diagnostic decisions, improve patients’ adherence to treatment protocols, and encourage their patients to make healthier lifestyle decisions that boost wellness. Today, mHealth has an important role to play in every step of the patient journey.
The Future of mHealth
Industry experts believe that by 2030, mobile apps will have become firmly embedded within standard treatment protocols for the majority of diseases and conditions, and widely used in preventative care. Their adoption will bring many benefits, including improved quality of care, increased patient engagement, and reduced costs. mHealth will at once make healthcare far more personalized and intimate while also providing clinicians with a stronger foundation for scientific evidence-based decision-making.
Nonetheless, the rapidly growing mHealth marketplace remains chaotic and volatile. Consumers are faced with an overabundance of choices, and very few of the available healthcare apps receive more than 10,000 downloads. In fact, usage of digital tools to manage health declined from 2018 to 2019, and at the start of 2020, fewer than two percent of patients in the largest U.S. hospitals had downloaded a hospital-provided mobile health app.
In the months and years, to come, however, it’s likely that both mHealth technologies and attitudes towards their use will mature. As this takes place, we expect to see mHealth’s development further accelerate, and many of the biggest barriers to its widespread adoption be overcome.
Here are the top five trends that will shape the future of mHealth:
1) Mobile apps will become more user-centric, boosting their “stickiness” as well as the fun factor.
The primary reason that many of today’s patients don’t download their hospital’s mobile app is that a majority of these proprietary apps don’t offer the functionalities that patients want most: the ability to book, change, and cancel appointments, electronic medical record access, and the ability to request drug prescription refills. This disconnect is diminishing, however, as health systems conduct more thorough research into their patients’ needs and experiences.
mHealth companies are also investigating the behavioral science behind user engagement. The results will include better personalization and increased gamification — so that the apps will give users more frequent small “nudges” to help them stay motivated to continue with their treatment plan or maintain health-enhancing behaviors.
2) Better integration of mHealth technologies will allow clinicians to tap into a rich ecosystem of data.
Traditionally, the medical device industry has struggled with interoperability across technology systems. Legacy clinical devices were not designed to communicate even with other information systems within the same hospital, let alone with mobile apps, wearables, or cloud-hosted analytics solutions.
But new regulations promise to bring much-needed standardization. In the U.S., the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 mandates that Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems adhere to expanded data sharing rules that encourage the use of standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) across systems. Several E.U. member states have joined in the call for data format and communication protocol standards, as have multiple major international device manufacturers.
As interoperability grows, clinicians will be able to access information from a variety of mHealth mobile apps and wearables from a single dashboard, giving them a more comprehensive, holistic view of individual wellness than was ever available before. Greater interoperability will also support the use of more advanced analytics, including sophisticated machine learning- and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven diagnostics and care management solutions.
3) Driven by consumer demands and stronger regulation, mHealth security will improve.
Today, one of the greatest barriers to the widespread adoption of mHealth technologies is a lack of trust — among patients and clinicians alike — in the security and reliability of mobile apps. Without clear governance within health systems, it’s difficult to distinguish between apps that are safe and those that contain vulnerabilities or present privacy concerns.
New regulations, including the E.U. Medical Device Regulation (MDR), which came into force in May 2020, seek to remedy these concerns by providing universal security requirements that all medical devices (including software) must meet. The current regulations haven’t been designed with the fast-paced nature of app development in mind, but as standards continue to evolve, it’s likely that there will be less and less tension between innovation and regulation. Within the next decade, it’s likely that trust in the security of approved devices will become near-universal.
4) Healthcare professionals will get better at incorporating mHealth apps into clinical operations and patient care protocols.
Resistance to change is part of human nature, and it exists among healthcare providers just as in any other group of people. However, in healthcare settings, clinical operational procedures are routine and highly standardized, which can make providers especially reluctant to give up familiar ways of working. When it comes to using mobile device data and new technologies in clinical settings, continuing education for established professionals can make adoption much easier, as can including coding and programming coursework in medical school curricula.
According to research conducted by Stanford University, today’s physicians and medical students recognize this reality. Nearly half of the physicians surveyed (47 percent) said they’re currently pursuing additional training to better prepare for technological innovations in healthcare, which 73 percent of students reported taking data- or technology-focused coursework. The trend is promising: tomorrow’s physicians are far more likely to feel comfortable with mHealth, wearables and data-driven diagnostics than today’s are.
5) ROI for mHealth app creators and publishers will become more predictable.
Put all of the above trends together, and the logical outcome is clear: as mHealth becomes more popular, better tailored to its users’ real-world needs, better integrated into the broader healthcare IT/OT ecosystem, more carefully regulated and safer, as well as more familiar to clinicians, developing mHealth apps will become a less risky proposition. We’re already seeing this phenomenon play out in U.S. markets, where —through venture funding, initial offerings, and acquisition— investments in digital health companies are at record high levels despite the global economic downturn associated with the pandemic.
Of course, it’s also possible to mitigate many of the risks in mHealth development by choosing an experienced and knowledgeable partner, especially one who is intimately familiar with the hardware integration and security challenges that are commonplace in your industry, and who understands how to overcome them.