mHealth--let's talk about reality, not just the potential

Sue MarekI just returned from the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society 2010 conference in Atlanta, where I was struck by the contrast between this healthcare-oriented conference and the wireless-focused confabs that I normally attend. The HIMSS exhibit floor was crowded and people were clearly networking and doing business. But gone was the flash, the hype and the noise that prevails at telecom conferences. I found it hard to believe that I was at a trade show.

Another big contrast that I observed was that while wireless industry executives almost always tout the great potential that wireless holds for healthcare, there is still a lot of skepticism among hospital CIOs about the reliability of wireless networks and--more importantly--the security.

At an executive breakfast panel I moderated on Tuesday that was hosted by FierceWireless and sister publication FierceMobileHealthcare, panelist Geoffrey Brown, senior vice president and CIO of Inova Health System in Falls Church, Va., said his firm hasn't reached the point where it feels wireless is as reliable as a wired network. And he also is worried that demand is outpacing the capabilities of the existing wireless network.

Although fellow panelists Chris Gray, industry solutions manager for healthcare at Sprint Nextel, and Ram Appalaraju, senior vice president of marketing at Meru Networks, assured the audience that wireless networks are able to perform as reliably as wired networks, both added that hospitals and healthcare organizations must adequately design their wireless networks and provide maintenance and diagnostics to ensure that the networks are performing properly.

Brown and panelist Roger Zaremba, CTO of Saint Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Mo., both said that security issues rank high on their list of concerns, particularly when it comes to transmitting health records over wireless networks.

But the comments from Zaremba and Brown stood in stark contrast to what Sprint CEO Dan Hesse talked about during his keynote at the conference on Monday morning. Hesse touted the potential of mHealth--including how healthcare telecom spending is expected to grow 44 percent over the next three years from $8.6 billion to $12.4 billion. He also said he thinks wireless applications, devices and solutions will be a big part of that spend. He peppered his talk with lots of real-life mobile applications, such as how doctors can input patient information into a smartphone and reduce errors, or how doctors can use a smartphone app to track outbreaks of H1N1 flu. 

Yes, wireless holds a lot of promise for the healthcare industry. However, unless the wireless industry can overcome some of the perception hurdles related to reliability and security, I fear that mHealth could get caught in that familiar web of hype vs. reality. I wouldn't want to see mHealth follow the same path that has hindered other wireless industry segments such as mobile entertainment. --Sue