The Washington Post recently published an article asking whether mHealth is the health care fix we’ve been waiting for. This question arose from a report by the world renowned Brookings Institution.

The report is written by Darrell West, the director of the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation, and is entitled “How Mobile Devices are Transforming Healthcare.

According to Brookings, mobile health may save $197 billion over the next 25 years in the US with most of the savings focused on chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure, pulmonary disease, diabetes, and skin ulcers.

And the savings are not limited to the United States, other countries may also save money as a result of mobile health technologies. Read below to learn more about this important study.

Underlying the potential savings is the constant growth in the number of people using mobile devices in the US and abroad. As the Post reports, 10 billion mobile devices will be used worldwide by 2016, more than one per person. Other reports support this notion of growth.

An article from emarketer.com indicated that by 2016, 58.5% of Americans will use a smartphone, making mobile health technologies readily available to most people in the country. However, disparities will still exist between those with smartphones and those without.

How can mHealth decrease health care costs?

One key question that readers should have about this new Brookings report is,“How does mHealth actually save money?” Software has been available for decades and laptops have been mobile for years, so how are these devices and their related software (apps) changing the current health care environment according to Brookings?

Darrell Wests points to a number of features of mobile technology which can contribute to lowering health care costs in the US and abroad. The first is that mHealth allows rural and urban regions to easily and quickly overcome their geographical barriers. The technology allows patients to easily share information with physicians in other regions and also allows health care workers to contact their urban counterparts easily.

Numerous apps in developed and developing countries allow health workers to transmit data remotely that can be analyzed by health professionals (often specialists) in urban areas. These health professionals can diagnose patients and recommend treatment much faster than before mHealth technology. The costs of travel are removed from the patient-clinician interaction.

Also, physicians have less face to face interactions with patients that have minor problems which can be solved remotely. This also saves the patient and insurers money. mHealth technology also provides rural areas with access to information quickly. For chronic diseases, patients are able to share their health related indicators (such as blood pressure) with health professionals who can provide them with advice on how to handle any problems. In addition, apps allow patients to access a wealth of data about their disease in a user friendly way and when necessary ask health professionals any questions they have.

Another way that mHealth technology saves money is by decreasing medical errors. West points out that in one study nurses indicated that mobile devices helped them avoid at least one error in clinical treatment. Information transmitted by text instead of spoken by phone or written on paper is easy to read and can be verified immediately by rural and urban health professionals communicating with one another. This technology can also help health professionals identify and more efficiently manage infectious disease outbreaks because people in rural and urban regions are able to easily communicate diseases that their patients are coming to them with.

The technology can also help elderly patients remember to take drugs and take an appropriate dosage of a drug. This decreases costs associated with them not complying with their drug regiment or taking inappropriate dosages. mHealth has also been used to remind people of doctors’ visits, prenatal checkups, and more – all focused on making sure they receive attention early, avoid potential complications that arise from not keeping appointments, or engage in healthy behaviors that prevent problems.

Overall health care costs are likely to be impacted by mobile technology based on the Brookings report. West indicates that “mHealth can reduce the costs of medical care among the elderly by 25 percent, double access to physicians by those living in rural areas, and improve tuberculosis treatment compliance by at least 30 percent.” However, West also indicates that there is a need for more research on how mHealth impacts health outcomes. So, predictions of health economists will need to be tested by researchers.

Barriers to the Expansion of mHealth Technologies

Finally, the Brookings report points out barriers that may prevent the expansion of mHealth technology. They are policy, regulation, and payment barriers. All are relevant, but the key barrier that West points out is that doctors need to be paid for engaging in remote health care in order for them to help this technology expand. Payment systems – public and private – have to adapt to these new health care delivery models which are poised to improve care but also save patients and insurers money.