The Untapped Potential of Mobile Tech in Personal Health


Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released the Mobile Health 2012 report and the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) published its review of sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile markets. Mobile phone ownership is growing, and has grown, at a staggering pace worldwide. In five key African markets, the sale of mobile devices grew by 80% in just the last three years. In the United States, the number of phones already exceeds the number of people; and 85% of adults have a phone; over 50% have a smartphone.


So what has such widespread phone ownership meant for the mobile health sphere?


The Pew Research report—which is based on a survey of more than 3,000 people—suggests that most people in the United States are not yet using their phones as tools for managing their health and well-being. But the number of people who report using their phones to access health or medical information has grown to 31%, up from 17% two years ago.  Interestingly, some historically marginalized groups—African Americans, Latinos, women, and young people—are among the most likely consumers of mobile health information or users of health apps.


Overall, what I think the Pew Report makes clear is that we still have a ways to go towards offering people the tools they need to capitalize on their phones as sources of health information and health care management and support. For example, although:


  • 84% of U.S. smartphone owners have downloaded an app; only 19% of users have downloaded a health-related app.
  • 80% of U.S. cell phone owners use text messages; only 9% use text for updates or alerts about health or medical issues.

Of particular interest to Tech urSelf’s work and upcoming release of its app urWell, is also the forthcoming survey from the Pew Internet Project, which reportedly has found that seven out of ten American adults track their health in some way, but only about a fifth use tech tools to do so.


In my opinion, the fact that people are not yet regularly using apps, text messages, or other tools such videos to support their health and well-being, speaks more to the lack of availability and integration of these tools into the larger health system than consumer’s lack of interest in the tools. In fact, the report finds that particular types of health consumers—caregivers, people going through recent medical crisis or shift in their health such as becoming pregnant, quitting smoking, or achieving weight-loss—express particular interest in mobile health tools and information.


What I see in the data is a challenge to the mobile health community. People want to own phones, and increasingly these phones are becoming vital information portals in their lives. With mobiles ownership moving towards universal, the mobile health world has a tremendous opportunity to develop the mobile health tools that people really will want to use—tools that could make it easier to manage a health crisis, to access health information or the health care system, or to track and respond to changes in their own well-being.


Next week, I will be at the Mobile Health Summit, and I am really excited to learn more about successful models for encouraging behavior change with mobile tech and how these new mobile tools can be user-friendly and integrated seamlessly into a person’s life. For so many of us, being healthy isn’t just about popping a pill or scheduling a surgery, it’s about understanding and changing our lifestyles in positive ways. Our phones can help us do this.


This blog was originally published by Tech urSelf Inc.