As Mobile Technology Grows, Different Parts of the Mobile Health Industry Emerge

Darren Austin zips open his black carrier case, places the syringe between his parted lips and pricks his index finger until a speck of blood appears. As a diabetic, Darren takes blood glucose tests seven times throughout the day. However, as he takes out his phone, he remarks that mobile technology has added a new dimension to his routine.


“Managing diabetes is a part-time job. I need to know exactly how many carbs I am eating whenever I eat in order to give myself the correct amount of insulin. I use my phone every day to help me with this extra work that is required to keep myself healthy and alive.”


When it comes to using mobile technology to manage health conditions, Austin, a 21- year old entrepreneur from Whitmore Lake, Michigan, is not alone. As the mobile industry grows and mobile devices become more accessible to individuals across the globe, mobile technology is increasingly being used for the purpose of public health. According to MCOL, a company that publishes health care business information based in Modesto, California, 34% of all adults in the United States downloaded at least one application on their mobile phone meant to support healthy living in 2014*. Additionally, 19% of U.S. adults have downloaded and regularly use a mobile health application. Seeing a way to connect more effectively to the public market, researchers and application developers are continuing to produce applications that individuals can download on their smartphones. However, some critics are concerned about the effectiveness and the security of these products.


There are a wide variety of mobile applications that focus on public health. The application Figure 1 allows medical professionals to share images of patient health issues in a format similar to Instagram. Users can upload images of patient diagnoses, connect with other users and comment on other users’ images on the application. Figure 1 automatically censors identifying patient features to ensure digital security. A company called Skyscape produces applications that provide a prescription drug guide, a clinical consult for health issues, and games to assist the health education process. The application called Glucose Buddy helps diabetics, like Austin, log blood glucose levels, insulin levels and food intake to help monitor their diabetes. As the number of people using mobile technology increase worldwide, so does the optimism for the change these applications might create.


“This is an opportunity for us to evolve the way communication and collaboration happens in medicine,” says Dr. Joshua Landy, the founder of Figure 1. A practicing critical care medical specialist, Dr. Landy founded the company in 2013 with Gregory Levey, an author and professor at Ryerson University, and Richard Penner, a professional software developer. A recent report released by Figure 1 indicated that one million healthcare professionals worldwide now use the application. “I feel like what Figure 1 is building is something that will be the central nervous system for healthcare communication in the future.. You can literally tap into the brains of a million other healthcare professionals around the world in 190 countries, no matter where you are.” While crowdsourcing health professional feedback on diagnostic case studies aims to help produce better health diagnoses, applications like Figure 1 can run the risk of favoring the majority opinion over true experts’ opinions in the comments section.


In addition to medical health based applications, users have also been quick to latch onto biometric devices, such as Nike’s Fuelband and the Fitbit, that measure physiological activity recorded from the user directly to chart data.


“It’s a very hot area,” Vic Strecher a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, says of mobile application technology. Strecher launched a mobile application in 2015, called Jool, that is designed to help users track and manage their life goals, willpower and energy level. “When you think about mobile, there has been a lot of speculation as to where biometric devices like Fitbits and Fuelbands might go,” Strecher says. “I view these things like stopwatches. If you want to know how fast a person is going, a stopwatch is helpful. But without a coach, a stopwatch is not that meaningful.”


However, other experts aren’t too confident that biometric devices are anything more than a fad.


“Everybody’s got a cell phone, right?” asks Michael Joyner, an expert in human physiology at the Mayo Clinic. “And the bodyweight of the country is not going down. If they [biometric devices] were widely used and widely effective, we would probably see the bodyweight of the country going down. Again, they may help some people, some people do better with this, some people do better with that…I’ve seen multiple waves of this stuff.”


As the presence of mobile health technology such as Figure 1 and Fitbit has increased, so have the security concerns surrounding them. In the digital age, almost all networks, even government networks like the National Security Agency, are prone to data leaks. How companies can effectively protect the consumer data they possess in their applications remains a crucial development. Hackers have been successful in targeting Fitbits, breaking into the device to obtain the user’s GPS locations throughout the day, the time they go to bed and other personal information. Medical health data is perhaps more valuable and sought out by hackers, as user information can be used to file false insurance claims and buy medical equipment or drugs that can be resold. As quoted in a September 2014 Reuters story, Don Jackson, the director of threat intelligence at a cyber crime protection agency called Phishlabs, says that stolen health credentials are now ten to twenty times more valuable than a stolen U.S. credit card number. John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of digital studies at the University of Michigan, cautions that companies who possess consumer data may also not use it for the best interests of consumers.


“Data has to be interpreted. Data has to be made to speak,” says Cheney-Lippold. “So if data is made to speak, who speaks for it? The way that data is spoken for is not on your terms.”


When talking about digital security for his own application Strecher added, “We need to move toward military grade security.”


According to Strecher, the mobile health industry is worth about 28 billion dollars. As money continues to pour into the industry and both biometric and application technology develop, it is up in the air as to which technology will prove to be more effective in supporting the field of public health. Also what remains to be seen is how these independent application developers and biometric devices could collaborate with one another to further create meaningful change in the health of patients, such as the possibility of an app like Glucose Buddy partnering with a biometric device to record more accurate information for diabetics.


“I think what we are going to see down the road are these companies starting to link and collaborate with other companies,” said Strecher. “And it won’t just be one app linking with another app. it might be one really great app linking to an electronic medical record.”


“If they keep making things that let me manage my diabetes in as little work as possible, of course I will keep using them.” Austin says.


Austin licks his finger as he takes a blood glucose test.


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