Should the Government be Doing More to Promote Mobile Health?

10/02/2012 23:19 GMT | Updated 11/04/2012 10:12 BST

The beginning of the year is always the best time for wild predictions. So here's one for you: in the very near future smartphones will be the first point of contact for many of us when it comes to healthcare. Rather than a trip to the doctors, or a visit to the nurse, we will instead turn to the cold, electronic devices that hitch a ride in our pockets and bags on a daily basis for their medical advice and diagnostic abilities.

App development is currently paving the way towards this healthcare - or mHealth - revolution. According to Juniper Research the global mHealth apps market will reach 142 million downloads by 2016. And this year will see more integration between smartphone technology and healthcare. More accessories will start to appear - accessories that will enable smartphones to help diagnose ear infections and cataracts, check heart conditions, track blood sugar levels for diabetes patients, monitor women's fertility levels, perform ultrasounds, and take your blood pressure. And Star Trek fans rejoice, the all-encompassing sci-fi diagnostic tool of the future - the tricorder - is also on the way.

It's a booming market - but what is the UK government doing to tap into it? Well, first of all there's Tech City - the part of London's East End, which is home to an ever-growing number of tech companies and start-ups and is benefitting from all manner of tax breaks and government funding. And, while not being specific to mHealth companies, it is an environment that would allow them to grow and possibly flourish.

Less scattergun approaches from the government include some of the initiatives the Technology Strategy Board is involved in. The Assisted Living Innovation Platform (ALIP) is trying to meet independence and quality of life problems, suffered by people with age-related disability and those with long term conditions, with affordable technologically driven solutions.

"We see a society in which the application of technology and the brilliance of innovative new services and systems will create a level playing field for all in the future," says Mike Biddle, Innovation Platform Leader at the Technology Strategy Board. "We are driving innovation to meet the demand for independent living and to date we have more than 130 participating organisations in 38 projects worth £47.1 million."

There's also the recently launched 3millionlives campaign, where the Department of Health, with support from the private sector, aim to roll out telehealth - or remote patient monitoring - to over three million patients across the UK, via a number of different telecommunication technologies.

But is it enough? The 3millionlives and ALIP initiatives are definitely steps in the right direction, but they also seem to be aimed at dealing with existing and inevitable healthcare and societal problems, rather than focusing on the preventative side of things. When you think that a quarter of UK adults are smartphone users, then the possibilities start to rack up.

One example of something in dire need of attention is obesity, which, in the UK, is one the greatest healthcare problems of our time - just ask Jamie Oliver. Over 60% of UK adults and over 31% of children are estimated to be overweight and smartphone related consumer healthcare products could help tackle this at the early stages of diagnosis. People suffering from obesity could use smartphones to gain instant access to advice about exercise and diets, while also using them as motivational and self-tracking tools, with the potential to feed information back to doctors on patients' activity levels. This would help people take control and responsibility for their condition, while still giving them access to medical consultation when required.

If the current UK government are desperate to add an element of competition to the NHS, then they might be better off aiming their crosshairs on fringe elements, like the consumer electronic and smartphone markets, rather than trying to implement it throughout the organisation. Frontline NHS services will thrive on cooperation, but private tech start-ups will relish competition. Helping to fund firms that produce cheap, affordable, regulated and NHS-approved self-diagnostic equipment, for the people who really need it, could give the economy and the healthcare system the shot in the arm it needs. Plus, who doesn't want to see a tricorder in action?