Mobile technology could vastly improve access to health care services and lower costs, but policymakers aren't taking the right steps to incorporate technology into care, a new report concludes.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution studied China and the United States — two countries that face similar challenges in reducing health care costs due to aging populations and are looking at mobile technology as part of the solution, said Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings.
Among the barriers to widespread use of mobile health technology in China and the United States is the fact that physicians don't get reimbursed for using the technology to deliver care. Also, developers are unclear about the rules and regulations surrounding mobile health applications, which limits innovation.
"There's a chicken-and-an-egg problem," said West, who was also a coauthor of the report. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services "doesn't want to reimburse until there are demonstrable benefits, but it's hard to demonstrate until it's adopted," he said. "And mobile health won't be widely adopted until there's reimbursement."
Mobile health has the potential to dramatically impact the health care market in part because the technology has become widely available worldwide. The number of mobile Internet subscribers has skyrocketed from 2.3 billion in 2008 to 3.4 billion in 2013, and it's expected to surpass 3.9 billion by 2017, according to a GSMA Wireless Intelligence report.
Among the benefits of mobile health listed in the report are that it can provide rural populations with access to urban specialists, reduce inefficiencies and errors in prescriptions and medical testing, help physicians remotely monitor patients with chronic illnesses, and remind patients about appointments and taking their medicine.
Research about how mobile technology improves patient outcomes is ongoing, West said, but early findings look promising.
"What people are finding is that patients pay closer attention to their health when they're wearing a device knowing that their vital signs are going directly to their doctor," West said. "You get a preventive health benefit, and doctors get real-time data to make proactive decisions about treatment."
Increased technology use, the researchers say, will also empower policymakers to make better decisions about health care — what works and what improves costs — by giving them more information about population health.
"We think there are tremendous opportunities in mobile health in terms of improving the patient experience and controlling costs," West said. "When you get people using mobile health, it creates the possibility of doing data analysis that helps us answer basic questions about health care."
China and the U.S. are two countries where health costs have spiraled out of control, underlining the need for innovation to rein in spending. Annual health spending in China has grown from 4.55 percent of the nation's gross domestic product in 2006 to 5.15 percent in 2011, according to government figures. Health spending in the United States is projected to rise from 16.2 percent of GDP in 2006 to 19.6 percent in 2021, according to the Health and Human Services Department.
Aging populations account for much of the growth. By 2050, 20 percent of the U.S. population and 33.3 percent of China's population will be over 65, researchers anticipate.
The rise in the two nations' elderly populations has been accompanied by a rise in the number of people suffering from chronic illnesses. Some 260 million people are diagnosed with chronic illnesses in China each year, according to government figures, accounting for 70 percent of overall costs. The U.S. also struggles with the cost of chronic care, amounting to about 75 percent of overall health care costs, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both countries also wrestle with disparities in access to care, especially with rural and low-income populations. Rural areas have fewer medical personnel per capita, a problem that could easily be solved by allowing rural patients access to urban doctors through video conferencing and other remote monitoring technologies, the report says.