Healthcare Technology Featured Article

December 21, 2012

Smartphones and Demographics Are Keys to Mobile Health

It is hard to remember when we didn’t have cell phones and electronic access to just about any good or service. Americans increasingly are using their mobile devices to access health information and use related applications (apps) in a variety of ways to address their health care needs.

Despite recent advances, uptake in mobile health (mHealth) is not quite as far along as we might have thought, according to a 2012 study of the status of mHealth by the Pew Internet Project. The project found the keys to greater mHealth advancement lie in technology and demographics.


Not surprisingly, there is a technological divide when it comes to mHealth. Pew researchers noted that 85 percent of U.S. adults own a cell phone, and slightly more than half of them own smartphones. It makes a difference.

  • One in three cell phone owners (31 percent) has used the phone to look for health information, up from 17 percent two years ago.
  • Smartphone owners lead the way when it comes to collecting health care information on their phones: slightly more than half use their phones for this purpose as compared with 6 percent of non-smartphone owners.
  • Some 19 percent of smartphone owners have at least one health app on their phone. Exercise, diet and weight apps are the most popular types, the study found.


Demographics also make a difference when it comes to the ways Americans use their cellular technology to address their health care needs.

  • Cell phone owners who are Latino or African American, between the ages of 18 and 49, or hold a college degree are most likely to gather health information this way.
  • Health status also plays a role. Caregivers, those who recently faced a medical crisis and those who experienced a recent, significant change in their physical health are more likely than other cell phone owners to use their phones to look for health information.
  • Just about every cell phone owner (80 percent) sends and receives text messages, but only 9 percent say they receive text updates or alerts about health or medical issues. That said, women, those between the ages of 30 and 64, and smartphone owners are more likely than other cell phone owners to have signed up for health text alerts.

What Does It Mean?

One takeaway from the last election cycle was that successful uptake depends on using the right technology and demographic segmentation. The low-hanging fruit for mHealth appears to be smartphone owners who are young, minorities and well educated. This presents tremendous opportunities to reach traditionally underserved and hard-to-reach populations with health information.

Although text messaging appears to be underused across all groups, texting specifically to the young may be another opportunity, albeit unexplored. Targeting information specifically of interest to women, such as weight loss, may be fruitful. Another segment of immediate interest is the chronically ill. Information available about various common conditions — such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers (such as prostate, lung and breast) — and how to manage them is likely to help drive mHealth adoption among this population.

While we tend to think about the endless array of cool mHealth apps that are being developed, we shouldn’t lose sight of the “app-nots” – those who cannot afford smartphones, are afraid of their complexity or just don’t want them. There are still millions of adult cell phone users – particularly in the upper middle age and elderly brackets – who might be willing to learn how to use their phones to access information about their health status, medical conditions and care delivery if the right apps were available and recommended by someone they trust.

While the Pew findings show that mHealth maybe isn’t quite as far along as we’d like to think, it is clear that mHealth has an inevitable, robust future. Some health plans are moving quickly, making acquisitions and developing their own mHealth apps, while others are in the strategic development stage.

Health plans not yet actively formulating an mHealth strategy risk being left behind. Fast-moving changes in technology combined with inevitable changes in the demographic composition of their membership will put these “appless” health plans at a significant competitive disadvantage. This will be doubly true once the millions of uninsured are signed up as new enrollees through health insurance exchange.

When that happens, outreach using nontraditional methods will be critical.

Edited by Braden Becker
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