Marcus Sigurdsson
Mar 3, 2016

Mobile health: Technology is not the issue, behaviour is

Writing following the Mobile World Congress, Marcus Sigurdsson of McCann Health reports that when it comes to mobile-driven health apps and services, the technology is ready. But driving actual behaviour change remains a hurdle, which means health communicators have an important role to play.

Marcus Sigurdsson
Marcus Sigurdsson

Once again, the world convened in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress 2016. For health and mHealth, the level of innovation, quantity and quality of health technology opportunities represented have steadily improved, with this year being the best ever, as far as I’m concerned. The new mobile technology coming on stream is more powerful than ever in helping people to live healthier lives.

The omnipresent Internet of Things (IoT) was a key theme. The future is promising IoT literally everywhere. Our environment, powered by 5G and with improved network connectivity and security, will actively come up with what it thinks is best for us.

Imagine an IoT healthcare scenario in which a patient (let’s call him Mr. Lee) has the following interactions with the medical “things” in his environment. First, Mr. Lee’s pill box gives a heads-up to his smartwatch that it’s running low on pills and suggests that next time the watch tracks him near a pharmacy, it should remind him to refill.  

Then, once Mr. Lee gets the reminder and walks into the pharmacy, his smartwatch signals to the connected diagnostics unit to conduct a quick health check once Mr. Lee does a biometric login. The data gets cross-referenced against Mr. Lee’s electronic health record, and maybe even quickly passes through IBM Watson Health on its way back to his mobile phone.

If everything seems okay and there is no need to alert the user’s physician, the drugs are provided and payment is handled via NFC technology. As Mr. Lee walks out the door, the payment gateway communicates to the pillbox that if no new pills are added in a few days, it needs to remind Mr. Lee again, or maybe even alert his physician to get Mr. Lee to comply.

This IoT scenario is only one takeaway from MWC 2016 on the technology opportunities ahead for healthcare marketers. Whether you are a physician, patient, payer or caregiver, you will have access to more insights faster than ever.

A second big theme was virtual reality (VR), with plenty of opportunities to test it out. Over the course of one day, I played virtual whack-a-mole using my gaze (eye-tracking), went ski jumping and made virtual 3D paintings in thin air.

My third takeaway was that software startups related to healthcare and wellness were much more visible than in previous years. The whole spectrum of technology was covered, ranging from demos of Nokia’s mHealth activities on a network level to health information-management systems for hospitals to apps that can smell bad breath and diapers with sensors.

In fact, the improvement of sensor technology and use of optoelectronics and nanotechnology are powering a number of existing products into areas such as blood diagnostics and spurring the development of different types of wearables. I had the opportunity to talk with startup entrepreneurs working with everything from clinical imaging to clinical trial recruitment and adherence.

Adoption is the tricky bit

Unfortunately, it’s also a fact that our capability to develop technology for health is so much better than people’s willingness and ability to adopt it on their own behalf.

During a seminar on digital health and behavioural change, I asked a panel of different specialists on mobile, innovation and clinical psychology where they favoured investing their mHealth agenda resources: would it be in technology, in legal and framework standards, or in human behavioural research? None of them answered that it would be in technology.

And there is a good reason for this. Technology and other external motivators haven’t been very successful in creating behavioural change. Take weight-management as an example. An ever growing proportion of the global population is becoming overweight or obese, from about 2 billion people in 2010 to a projected 2.7 billion in 2025. And we’ve had technology to inform people that they were risking serious weight increase for a while, going back to the inventions of mirrors and scales.  

The truth is that while the more than 200,000 health-related apps certainly have helped some people to lead healthier lives, it tends to be those people who already take an active interest in their health who download and use them.

So to really achieve progress in the application of health technology we need to put the person in the centre and focus on the physicians, patients and caregivers as part of the whole environment. And we need to understand behavioural change theory, as well as we do IoT network management.

Another essential factor in facilitating value generation and trust is interoperability between, and the validation of, the data collected. And without a legal framework and universal standards, implementation is a massive challenge.

The good news is that things are starting to change.

The medical paradigm is shifting from being primarily clinician-centric in the '80s (focused on effect, quality and safety) to becoming increasingly patient-centric (focused on the value and outcome delivered to the patient). And with that the rest of the ecosystem is following. Those of us who work in healthcare communications have a unique role to play in driving user-centricity and in functioning as the bridge between tech, academia, science and creativity to deliver innovative solutions that work.

MWC 2016 confirmed to me that technology is giving us all the opportunity we need to create healthy behaviour. Now it is up to the healthcare industry and the rest of the ecosystem to build the environment and the user understanding necessary to make it work.

Marcus Sigurdsson is the chief digital officer for McCann Health Asia Pacific.


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