Digital Transformation of Healthcare with Mobile Technology

Dan Dodson, System Director, IT Innovation, UNC Health Care
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Dan Dodson, System Director, IT Innovation, UNC Health Care

Dan Dodson, System Director, IT Innovation, UNC Health Care

I started my career in healthcare but quickly took a detour and spent the majority of my work-life in the wireless industry before transitioning back, into digital healthcare. It’s exciting to stand at the crossroads, witnessing and facilitating the convergence of these two industries.

 With so much evidence for the popularity of smart phones, the obvious solution would be to rush a plethora of mobile apps to market–but that doesn’t guarantee success 

As you are likely aware, people often struggle with their health and navigating a complex healthcare industry. Patients and caregivers may feel overwhelmed and confused, often leading to apathy in caring for themselves and those they love. I believe mobile services can help solve the issue of patient engagement.

At UNC Health Care, the ISD Innovation team’s desire is to create a compelling mobile-first strategy within our healthcare ecosystem to enhance our patient engagement, population health, and innovation initiatives while staying true to our values and goals. Ingrained into modern culture, the Smartphone/ tablet/mobile device is now the most effective place to reach consumers. 95 percent of Americans own a mobile phone of some kind, and Pew Research states that 77 percent of Americans own a smart phone (up from just 35 percent in 2011). While web and desktop applications will continue to play a role in healthcare as many have been well adopted and ubiquitous, the mobile experience should be considered first when designing end-user touch points, tapping into the swell of patient access via the mobile device.

Some smart phone owners– particularly younger adults, minorities, and lower-income Americans–depend on their smart phone for internet access. Pew research states that among those U.S. adults who own a smart phone, seven percent are “smart phone-dependent,” meaning they do not have home broadband service and have limited options for going online other than via their mobile device. 13 percent of U.S. adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are smart phone-dependent, providing one of the only ways to connect with these folks.

We know mobile phones are popular, but I was shocked when I learned that, regardless of age group, people in the United States check their mobile phones an average of 46 times per day according to Deloitte. Pew Research states that 46 percent of smart phone owners say their smart phone is something “they couldn’t live without.”

With so much evidence for the popularity of smart phones, the obvious solution would be to rush a plethora of mobile apps to market–but that doesn’t guarantee success. IMS Institute stated that in 2015 there were over 165,000 mHealth (mobile health) apps available to consumers. Yet, just 36 of these mHealth apps accounts for nearly half of all downloads, and 40 percent of all mHealth apps have fewer than 5,000 downloads.

Although the number of mHealth apps have grown, the reality is that most go unused. As a healthcare system, we strive to identify useful ways in which wireless can help to engage our patients and providers. We are currently trialing a new mobile app that allows our providers the ability to securely communicate and collaborate with other providers as well as search our robust provider directory. To help facilitate patient care, we made it easy to contact our consultation center and transfer centers. This is only the first stage of a broader mobile strategy to expand consumer/patient focused functionality, ultimately building a unified mobile experience that can be customized to the end-user’s need.

By creating a unified mobile app, users can add additional features/applications to tailor their experience. Creating an umbrella app helps minimize the patient’s need to download and manage multiple apps.

To help guide the road-mapping of future enhancements for our unified mobile platform, we tap the diverse expertise of a cross-functional team from our ISD Innovations’ workgroup. This group explores a variety of innovation initiatives and helps to facilitate the implementation, moving an idea into execution. Using the following framework, we vet which ideas will continue to move through the process.

Our goal of a unified mobile app platform is a key component of our wireless strategy, but it is only part of our broader vision to combine multiple wireless modalities into a cohesive user-experience. I often hear that the challenge with innovation isn’t coming up with great ideas but executing on those ideas. This is especially true for healthcare environments where ideas must be carefully scrutinized. Within our ISD Innovation group, we bring a “product manager” mindset to our development process. When introducing new technologies or services (especially within the wireless space), we seek to ensure that optimal user-experience is compatible with HIPAA and security requirements. The FDA provides some guidance (https://www.fda.gov/medicaldevices/ digitalhealth/) on digital health including wireless apps, but working with new wireless technologies or services requires internal due diligence to ensure our innovation efforts are fully vetted and offer the best experience for our patients and providers. A team approach is key to achieving both objectives.

As we innovate, we are encouraged by wireless carriers potentially launching 5G (the G stands for generation) wireless networks this year. Although 5G phones may not be available until the first half of 2019, these early implementations will likely preview what’s to come. Today’s 4G wireless networks facilitate “megabits speed” throughput, but future 5G networks will offer “gigabits speed”, lower latency (making service/apps more responsive), and increased capacity (allowing more devices to connect at once). In a real-world simulation conducted in San Francisco, Qualcomm found dramatic improvements to the median speed of 5G users compared to 4G users.

The net effect of these technological innovations means that the quality of service of telehealth (telemedicine, remote monitoring, etc.) along with other services will vastly improve due to higher speed networks. It’s an exciting time to be in digital health innovation.

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