Data Privacy Concerns Hinder mHealth

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There is no shortage of trivial things that smartphones can do: they can make a noise like Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver, they open a universe of amusing cat videos, and they offer the coolest games around. As quickly as the fun aspects of cell phones multiply, however, their practical value is also growing by leaps and bounds.

One of the most exciting prospects for mobile is mHealth; it has the potential to help people around the world live longer, richer, healthier lives. What exactly is mHealth, and what are its implications when it comes to data privacy?

What Is mHealth?

mHealth is an abbreviation for mobile health. The World Health Organization says of mHealth, “mHealth is a component of eHealth. To date, no standardized definition of mHealth has been established.” Indeed, mHealth is so new that it is more of a growing concept than a concrete function of the medical world.

Despite the ambiguity surrounding mHealth, however, some things are certain. There are almost as many cell phone subscriptions worldwide as there are people; mHealth may one day make access to basic medical care and information truly universal.

The potential applications of mHealth are endless. Researchers may use it to gather valuable data on people’s activities and genetics; patients may be able to use sensors to send their care provider information from afar; health care providers could send reminders for people to take their medicine; and it might even make an impact in the fight against diseases like diabetes.

mHealth Down the Road

The benefits of mHealth may seem great in theory, but what do medical professionals worldwide think about the technology’s potential?

Summarizing a survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit, HIT Consultant highlighted that the medical field sees a bright future for mHealth. The survey found well over half of health care leaders think mHealth could improve outcomes for patients. About half think mobile health will be just the tool patients need to take a proactive approach to health, and half think it will reduce the costs associated with healthcare delivery.

As it stands at the moment, mobile health’s main role is to educate and inform patients. However, there is little doubt that the technology could eventually grow to be an integral part of health care worldwide. That will only happen if mHealth can overcome the obstacles in front of it.

It Isn’t All Roses for mHealth

Unfortunately, as is the case with many other brilliant ideas, money stands in the way of mHealth’s progress, particularly in the United States. In the U.S., medical services are carried out within a fee-for-service system. mHealth could drastically reduce the dollar amount that goes into pockets of the medical industry. In the survey, about one-fifth of participants thought  mHealth might deliver no revenue at all.

Another issue that may block mHealth’s forward motion is patients. Elderly and infirm people may hesitate to trust mHealth, and they may have trouble learning to use it. Furthermore, human error becomes a greater danger when medical treatments fall into the hands of the untrained; if people do not receive the proper training on how to use devices associated with mHealth — such as sensors, for example — they could end up with misleading information and mistaken beliefs about their health.

The medical industry’s attitude may also prove itself an obstacle; the survey found that more than 40 percent of participants think that “institutional conservatism” is a problem.

The Data Privacy Issue

Certainly, concerns abound around mHealth, and perhaps the biggest of those concerns is data privacy. Medical identity theft is already a large problem. One memorable horror story is that of Anndorie Sachs; because another woman stole her identity and gave birth to a baby with drugs in its system, authorities temporarily took Sachs’ children away. That horror story is by no means an isolated case. One report found that there were 1.85 million victims of medical identity theft in 2013.

Could mHealth further exacerbate the problem? Imagine you have a wealth of important medical data stored on your mobile device, and you lose your device. Whether it is your vital statistics, the names of your care providers, or your insurance information, you could find yourself confused and frustrated the next time you needed medical attention.

There is also the issue of Big Brother. mHealth could help researchers by providing huge data samples regarding people’s health and activities. The operators of mHealth programs could even sell that data to insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Such practices may spur advancements in the medical field, but they illustrate the truth that even information as sensitive as medical records could end up anywhere.

The Road to Making mHealth a Reality

What can legislators and mHealth regulators do to make the positives of mHealth outweigh the negatives? Some possible steps include:

  • Encrypting all medical data on mobile devices and developing medical apps with a focus on privacy and security.
  • Enacting legislation that sets out specific rules for how mHealth data can be used and who can use it.
  • Monetizing mHealth by charging fees for mobile consultations and selling subscriptions for access to special kinds of content.
  • Requiring peer reviews for all medical apps and mobile procedures to ensure they are as effective and accurate as possible.
  • Equipping mobile apps with an option that allows operators to remotely wipe medical data from a device if it is lost or stolen.

Is mHealth the Future?

Whether you are a health nut or you just want to take reasonable measures to stay in good shape, mHealth sounds like a convenient option. As mHealth makes its way into the mainstream, become ever more diligent about making sure that your mobile device has safeguards against hackers. Keep your device updated, don’t download suspicious apps, and stay abreast of the latest tech threats. Talk to your health care provider about mobile health; he or she may be able to give you advice and keep you up-to-date on your mHealth options.

Reduced medical costs and easy access to health advice sounds like a dream, but mHealth doesn’t come without its downsides. Only the future will tell if it will become a prominent part of the health care system.

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