iPads and other wireless technology: Forget the fun...will they be the next great public health invention?

iPad mania is sweeping the nation! It even made a cameo in my new favorite show, "Modern Family". In a recent episode, all Phil Dunphy wants for his birthday is an iPad. He is excited to use it for web browsing, eBook reading, and video watching. But what if it could also improve his health?
A great article in The Economist this week called, "When your carpet calls your doctor", examines how the convergence of wireless communications, social networking, and medicine will transform health care.

This concept appears quite realistic for several reasons:
  • Doctors are already using and comfortable with the technology. The article quotes a forthcoming report by the California Health Care Foundation that found that two-thirds of doctors are already using "smart phones" (a mobile phone with advanced capabilities such as Internet connectivity). Doctors are also used to turning to their computers and/or wireless devices for programs like Epocrates to review treatment information and decision making tools.
  • Wireless technology reduces treatment barriers such as the distance and/or availability of the health care provider. One example of the technology being developed is a device which will be able to contact a doctor when his/her elderly patient is about to take a fall in their residence. The article also quotes successful work being done in developing countries such as Rwanda and Peru. This work has expanded to public health programs in the United States, such as Text4baby. This is an educational program of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB). Women who sign up for the service will receive free text messages each week, timed to their due date or baby's date of birth.
  • This technology is aiming to address barriers and facilitators of Behavior Change, not just an increase in knowledge! The focus soley on education to increase knowledge is the downfall of many public health programs. Knowledge alone will not change behavior. However, check out the programs from the company Virgin HealthMiles. They have begun using online social networks, through which co-workers or family members can cheer on or nag patients electronically, in order to encourage exercise or weight loss. The company is beginning to explore how to increase the level of social support and social/family acceptance that patients receive regarding their recommended treatment. Lack of support in these areas can often be a barrier to treatment success.
Of course there are still a few things that remain to be seen about the success of these eHealth programs. What are the privacy implications? Are smart phones (or similar wireless technology) widely available to the populations that most need these interventions (e.g., low socioeconomic status, the elderly, rural residents, etc)? What do my readers think?


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