As the technology behind mHealth wearables and apps continues to evolve, healthcare will no longer be relegated to the confines of hospital corridors or doctor’s offices.

Multiple shifts and trends in the national and global healthcare industry are driving new ways of treating patients—and creating an exciting category as a result. In the past, Americans found medical practitioners through their insurance networks and scheduled office visits for various needs and conditions, including when an office visit may not be necessary. However, the push to drive consumers to take greater ownership of their health, including shouldering more of the cost, is moving consumers to rethink where and when they need to spend on medical attention. The result is a rise in comparison shopping for physicians in ways they haven’t needed to before.

Intersecting with the changing healthcare landscape is the growing cost and strain on resources by chronically ill patients in the U.S., which are said to make up for nearly 70% of doctor office visits. Many of these visits could be conducted remotely.

Adding to this, many countries and regions in the world simply do not have enough doctors—particularly specialists—to meet the demand by patients. According to the New York Times, in the U.S. alone, office visit wait times are said to be as long as 29 days. For certain practice areas, where physicians are limited in numbers, the wait can be even longer. In many countries globally, it can take months before an appointment. Lack of access can also mean travel time or commutes worldwide, moving many consumers to simply skip office visits unless absolutely critical.

What all of this is creating is a new “perfect storm” for solutions, making the potential and promise of mobile health (mHealth) greater than ever before.

From Wellness To Medicine

To date, most health-related smartphone apps have centered on wellness, such as Fitbit and MyFitnessPal. Within the past year, this has evolved to include apps that address disease and treatment, and help consumers manage chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes. Some healthcare apps even allow consumers to find and connect with physicians locally or globally to ask questions or obtain information, such as a second opinion on treatment or other general information.

But even more promising is the emerging wave of telemedicine mobile apps, where in the near future doctors will be able to diagnose and treat patients anywhere in the world via smartphone. While a labyrinth of regulations and requirements currently limit this in the United States, it is likely that it will change in the coming years. Internationally, telemedicine is already growing in use, with doctors and patients connecting digitally for care, leaving office visits to necessity. The outcome is the potential to reduce costs and doctor/hospital visits, while giving the consumer greater choice and access to care.
Whereas in the past, people were limited to doctors within their geographical location, and restricted to “office hours,” mHealth’s future enables borderless, constant care—and that can mean better care for patients with less burden on healthcare resources.

Technology’s Expanding Role

The smartphone is not the only technology that can improve healthcare. Sensor technology and artificial intelligence warrant the ability for patients to be monitored in real-time—and care can be determined and administered when the body needs it, versus on a fixed schedule. Medtronic, IBM Watson Health, Novartis, and many others are developing new solutions that integrate technology and healthcare in this manner, where recommendations for care can be made on predictive intelligence—and adjusted when readings signal something abnormal via video or chat.

The potential to cut waste, error and other issues increases dynamically as these technologies help doctors offer more precise, customized care—all based on real-time data and information provided directly from the patient’s body. Technology isn’t just improving traditional medicine, but also mental health as well. Apps for therapy and other mental health needs are equally arriving. Even early stage apps like fitness trackers and fitness wearables are now able to play a greater role in identifying and predicting the body’s healthcare needs for greater preventative care.

Government, Insurer, And Physician Incentive

It’s no surprise given the potential benefits of mHealth, that government agencies, insurers and physicians are interested in its power. When Britain’s National Health Service tested the cost-effectiveness of remote support for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it found that a tablet paired with sensors measuring vital signs could result in better care and enormous savings by enabling early intervention. The organization has since rolled out seven new initiatives. This is just one of the many real-world examples of how these technologies are already making an impact.

The mHealth market is currently fragmented, providing an opportunity for organizations to adopt these strategies early in order to be at the forefront of healthcare’s mobile disruption. Government regulations in need of change currently leave room for technology to advance and adapt before true market penetration is possible or realized. Large health brands are actively developing their own solutions, leaving tech-based startups to compete with large players that hold significant industry and patient access, with deep financial pockets. The key will be for all to strategize and prepare for what’s ahead, which includes a likely explosiveness of consumer movement to mHealth apps, market consolidation, government regulation, and many other changes.