Get Ready for Mobile in Health Care

In society and technology, mobile has gone beyond a buzzword to become a veritable way of life. Look around and see how many people have tablets and smartphones at hand, ready to communicate with the world, check competing prices for products, find directions, seek information, update schedules, and otherwise add layers of convenience and insight to life.

Mobile will be important to health care. The potential benefits, both in improved outcomes and in monetary savings, are significant.

So, of course mobile will play a role in health care delivery. Patients move from work to home to other places. Health care professionals are mobile within hospitals and may have to travel to reach patients. Total care delivery may be fragmented through a number of institutions. There may even be cases where aspects of care and monitoring happen through a patient’s personal mobile device. The potential and likely impact of mobile means that people with a health informatics degree or other health care-focused IT background will need to understand the possibilities and how to safely and effectively implement the technology.

For example, in Bangladesh, many people do not have access to regular health care. Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who sees cellphones as a tool to change society there, is working with Intel to develop ultrasound systems that work through a phone, allowing women to conduct tests and send results to doctors to reduce the number of risky pregnancies.

Denmark is looking to incorporate mobile technology in health care through a number of ways. One is to treat certain chronic diseases at least in part through telemedicine. Danish Minister of Health Astrid Krag has given ulcers as one example that could save the country $3 billion a year.

The potential benefits, both in improved outcomes and in monetary savings, are significant. But in addition to such clear needs as protection of confidential information and  integration of data systems, there are issues of design and user interfaces that could make or break efforts.

The problem is an old one, literally going back to a 1910 Rockefeller Foundation campaign to eradicate hookworm. The idea was to teach people how to avoid becoming infected. Remember, neither television nor radio was available. The campaign tried creating a movie that showed in theaters, but it didn’t work because the target audience in rural areas didn’t regularly attend. Eventually, the campaign had to adopt mobile theaters in which to show the film. Things got even tougher when the campaign went mobile. How do you structure messages and language in such a way as to be effective and relevant to multiple cultures?

Understanding the design issues is as easy as navigating a mobile phone browser to a non-mobile website. There is a visual collision, with far more information than can be effectively delivered on a small screen.

Mobile will be important to health care. IT people involved will have to think beyond delineated questions of technical implementation and work with care professionals to understand how to design systems that will accomplish what organizations intend to do.

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