Improving Health Care: There Are Apps for That

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If Dan Hesse had told you, 25 years ago, that you’d be reviewing studies, monitoring patients, and communicating with referrers using Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone, you would have thought him delirious. With today’s smart phones in play, the pitch from Sprint’s CEO did not sound like science fiction. Addressing an audience of health-care IT practitioners at the annual Health Information and Management Systems Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 1, Hesse predicted a coming revolution in wireless communications in medicine. “We believe that there is a historic opportunity for wireless to transform health care by boosting efficiency, raising quality, and reducing costs,” he says, but he makes it clear that this will only happen through partnering with health-care providers. Hesse recently made a presentation to top government officials at the White House on how wireless technology is increasing productivity, reducing costs, boosting customer satisfaction, and increasing competitiveness in manufacturing, transportation, professional services, and government. He identifies health care, however, as the sector with the greatest gap between the need for change and the adoption of wireless technology to support that change. While health care struggles to meet the challenges of the aging baby boomers, government regulations, rising costs, and the prevalence of chronic conditions (which account for 85% of health-care dollars), it has failed to make an IT investment commensurate with that of other industries.
“While the challenges grow, too many health-care facilities have to rely on aging telecom systems that hinder collaboration. The health-care industry spends only 2% to 3% of revenues on IT, compared to most industries, which spend 6% to 8%.”
—Dan Hesse, CEO, Sprint
All of that is changing, Hesse says, noting that health-care telecommunications spending is expected to rise 44% over the next three years (from $8.6 billion to $12.4 billion), with wireless applications (apps), devices, and solutions accounting for two-thirds of added spending. Almost two-thirds of physicians use smart phones, and in two years, that number will increase to 80%. “Today, on a planet of 6.8 billion people, there are more than four billion active cell phones—more mobile phones in the world than TVs, PCs, and cars combined,” he says. “The cell phone is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of this planet.” Today, there are apps for instant, secure access to laboratory results, radiographs, vital signs, drug–drug interactions, and other medical records, Hesse notes. There is a smart-phone app (called FluRadar) for tracking H1N1 influenza outbreaks, and there’s another for identifying the shapes and sizes of benign and malignant melanoma lesions. “Have you ever accidentally coughed into your mobile phone?” Hesse asks. “Now, you might want to do it on purpose. There is an app that analyzes your cough and tells you whether it is wet or dry and productive or nonproductive.” Two engineers at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, have invented an ultrasound probe that works on 0.5 W of power from a cell phone, enabling users to conduct exams anywhere and transmit them to a physician. “The invention could not only cut the cost of ultrasound machines, but also put them in the pockets of EMTs, battlefield medics, school nurses, and obstetricians working far from a hospital,” Hesse notes. Hesse says that Sprint is fostering innovation by encouraging developers to write apps for multiple platforms, including Android™, Palm’s webOS, RIM/BlackBerry®, Windows Mobile®, and Java™. Thus far, the company has partnered with health IT vendors to develop a wireless mobile-communications system that enables one health-care system’s caregivers to access diagnostic information, a virtual coach for diabetic patients, and an app that enables physicians to view ECGs and CT scans on a smart phone. Apps for home health care are an area for which Hesse predicts explosive growth. “As the population ages, home health care is growing dramatically, and we believe it can greatly benefit from mobile technologies,” he says. “In fact, the best projections are that the US market for wireless home-based health-care apps and services will grow from $304 million to $4 billion by 2013." As radiologists well know, an app is only as good as the network bandwidth’s ability to support it. Hesse promotes Sprint’s 4G network, which the company is rolling out in designated markets across the country. The network uses secure, licensed spectrum, which Hesse says is an improvement over Wi-Fi™ when it comes to protecting privacy. Just as increasingly sophisticated cross-sectional modalities are testing hospital networks’ bandwidth, so will mobile networks be tested, if usage measures up to Hesse’s predictions: “One research firm predicts there will be 2.5 billion data-centric devices in use worldwide by 2014, and more than half will not be smart phones: They will be TVs, netbooks, remote monitoring devices, and videoconferencing, to name a few,” he says. Cheryl Proval is editorial director of