Apps for Health: The mHealth Renaissance

May 30, 2013 Ali Taiyeb

We recently had the opportunity to attend Mohawk College’s Apps for Health conference and further explore the mHealth renaissance. We discovered three compelling ideas that would improve health as we know it. It all starts with the end user, and their interactions with health apps.

Design Thinking in Health

We’re used to seeing beautifully designed tools, technology, and apps everyday. It started with consumer-facing technology (e.g., Apple iPod, Path), and it has spread to enterprise software. It’s high time that this focus on design spread to health utilities as well, which have traditionally been known for their complex and frustrating navigation. This message was from the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation’s Dr. Joseph Cafazzo.

Human-centric design should be a priority for all health software, which frequently deals with matters of life and death. Whether it’s blood pressure graphs, dosages, or any other user interface element, it’s time we started rethinking the field’s general focus on design.

Cafazzo’s Healthcare Human Factors Group, “the largest group of its kind devoted to the application of human factors engineering to problems of healthcare delivery and patient safety,” practises what it preaches: their project, Bant, is an example of healthcare with a human-centric focus. We’re familiar with the concept, having previously worked with health startup Glooko to build a glucose monitor for diabetics, as well as Better, backed by the Mayo Clinic and Social + Capital Fund.

Mohawk MEDIC

Mohawk College’s MEDIC program has existed for seven years as a specialized program in engineering for mHealth and eHealth. They’re churning out some internationally-used open source platforms (one of their platforms is currently being used in Rwanda). MEDIC is not only an exploration into how students can specialize and immerse themselves in mHealth, but also serves as a system that helps health-oriented organizations accelerate their progress.

This is essentially a collective where computer science and engineering students in mHealth and eHealth streams gather and collaborate to help small and medium-sized businesses develop and commercialize health innovations. They respond to actual RFI’s, and have a very specific focus on health: they master the different protocols, securities, and various other nuances of the field.

The program is led by Professor Duane Bender, who managed the team that built Mohawk’s app. Bender also was one of the organizers behind Apps for Health. We’re excited to see how MEDIC will continue to evolve, both in terms of student development and health advancement.

OTC vs. Prescription Apps

Much like how certain drugs are available over the counter and many others can only be accessed with a prescription, health apps should also take this pharmaceutical approach. These drastically different tiers and types of apps can be carefully curated by doctors, which makes the process safer and simpler for patients. We have experience in this area, having developed VitalHub Chart for use in a hospital setting by doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

Will Falk, a managing partner at PWC, shared his keynote about tiered apps. While more general apps may feature generic information (e.g., lifestyle models such as Nike Fit or Jawbone Up), some other apps can be extremely heavy duty (e.g., Type 2 diabetes or Asthma). If a patient has a serious case but is unsuspectingly relying on a general app for information, and it gives him the wrong analytics or graph, his health could be in jeopardy and he may administer the wrong type of remedy.

Instead of purely writing prescriptions for drugs, doctors can now suggest that a patient try an app and return to the office if problems persist. This has further structural implications: there will need to be a body of certification to develop the tiers and oversee its implementation. Falk’s perspective is that Canada is becoming a thought leader in the space, because we’re up to speed with technology and its applications in health.

Final Thoughts

It was exciting to look into the future of mHealth and eHealth at Apps for Health. We continued our journey this week by attending and presenting at Coach, which we’ll blog about soon!


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