NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Use of Mobile Technology in Health Care

March 21, 2014

The United States and China need to make policy changes in order to fully capture the benefits of mobile technology in health care, according to new research from the Brookings Institution and researchers from the China Academy of Telecommunication Research of MIIT.

The use of mobile technology in health care, or mHealth, has grown in popularity in recent years.

  • Many countries have established health call centers to respond to inquiries by patients, as well as using text messaging to issue appointment reminders, measure treatment compliance and monitor patients, among other things.
  • North America, South America and Southeast Asia have adopted mHealth initiatives more than other places. Africa has the lowest rate of mHealth usage.
  • By the end of 2017, analysts expect the global mobile health market to reach $23 billion, the largest markets being in Europe and Asia-Pacific.
  • According to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 31 percent of Americans used their cell phones to look up health or medical information online in 2012. That same year, 37 percent used apps to track or manage their health, up from 17 percent in 2010.
  • Currently, few doctors in the United States use video conferencing for informal consultations because it is difficult to be paid for it.

There are many opportunities for mHealth to grow, but certain challenges remain. There are three main problems:

  • Both in China and the United States, the market for mobile health is small and its use is not widely accepted. Hospitals, service providers, users, equipment manufacturers and network operators all need to work together to take advantage of these opportunities.
  • Policy challenges and legal issues also pose problems. In China, mobile health service providers are not authorized to treat patients or prescribe medication, only to consult. In the United States, limits on reimbursement for mobile health practices and lack of insurance coverage for mHealth consultations and treatment have slowed its adoption.
  • While mHealth apps that track calories or activity levels are likely not subject to regulation, some apps may perform medical functions. In that case, they might be considered a "medical device" under U.S. law and would have to comply with various regulations.

Mobile devices could improve access and make health care more affordable by lowering disparities based on geography and income. If policymakers would reduce regulatory uncertainty and clarify policies on reimbursement and the use of mHealth, the market could grow and more people could begin seeing the benefits of mobile technology.

Source: Yu Xiaohui et al., "mHealth in China and the United States: How Mobile Technology is Transforming Health Care in the World's Two Largest Economies," Brookings Institution, March 12, 2014.


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