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Making mHealth Healthy

By: Wendy J. Nilsen, PhD, OBSSR health scientist administrator | Published: February 19, 2015

This post originally appeared on the National Institutes of Health Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research blog, The Connector. It is re-posted here with permission.

Recently, multiple articles have appeared in the popular press noting that mobile health (mHealth) has not been fulfilling its potential. Whether this is because it has failed to live up to the hype or because it fails those who most need it, the overriding message is that mHealth has to move away from being just exciting technology for a select group of tech savvy individuals. Instead, it must become a product that understands the needs of the population and merges an understanding of science and consumer behavior to create tools that are useful.

The usefulness component is key, because those who are most in need are not going to tolerate buggy technology. People who most need mHealth are those who suffer from chronic diseases and those who are trying to maximize their health as one of many competing demands. For example, a pulse oximeter that repeatedly unsyncs from a phone, or an app that becomes buggy with each operating system update will only discourage people from using mHealth interventions.

For many potential users, especially, the underserved, stigmatized, and those with limited health literacy, a device that assumes you have nothing more to do than think about your mHealth technology or your cancer-reducing calories may have little or no chance. As Patel, Ash and Volpp noted in a recent article in JAMA, mHealth is no more than a tool. The technology itself is not magic, and for it to be successful, we will need expertise from many disciplines, including areas outside of traditional health.

Moving mHealth forward will involve understanding behavior, including not only the factors driving health behaviors, but also the mediators and moderators of everyday activities and decisions. With this broad knowledge of user and health, we can bring in experts specializing in user experience, human-computer interaction and other human factors disciplines who will partner with health and technology experts to create mHealth tools that improve health outcomes. Based on our best science, these tools will fit into people’s lives and be useful. In short, by bringing together the needed expertise, mHealth can become one of the first fields to understand that the best way to help patients is to treat them as consumers of health and not passive recipients.

What do you think is most needed—right now—to move mHealth forward? Please share your thoughts by joining the discussion on LinkedIn. You can also answer a one-question poll and view the results.