Feds Describe Major Push for Mobile Health Apps

WASHINGTON -- Senior government officials on Monday touted the Obama administration's commitment to expanding federally backed programs to encourage mobile applications that aid the delivery of health care and monitoring services.

Speaking here at the mHealth Summit, a conference focused on mobile technology and health care, Todd Park, CTO at the Department of Health and Human Services, described an ambitious online initiative expected to launch in December that will open access to the agency's trove of health information through a new website. The open health data campaign, centered around the forthcoming HealthData.gov site, aims to provide a fertile repository of information about childhood obesity, smoking cessation rates and all manner of other data sets that developers and others could use to build novel health IT applications.

"HHS sits on an extraordinary array of data that if made easily accessible to the public could help consumers, patients, providers and community leaders make better decisions to improve health," Park said. "It's the goal of our open health data initiative to do exactly that."

Park, a former tech entrepreneur who joined HHS in August 2009, said his vision for the open health data initiative is patterned after the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that maintains the National Weather Service and provides the data that comprise the backbone of the local and national weather reports delivered by news outlets.

"Our open health data campaign is turning HHS into the NOAA of health data," Park said. The health information that HHS' site will provide will be "easily accessible and downloadable," he said, adding that like NOAA's data sets, the new site will be "without intellectual property constraint," aiming for the broadest possible application.

Telehealth trend taken up by the Feds

HHS' campaign continues administration efforts to tap the Web to broaden access to government data and enlist the developer community to build apps that can both extend the reach of federal information and enhance its value in the form of user-friendly online services.

But the federal government's interest in the development of mobile health applications is more than just an outsourcing mission. The National Institutes of Health, the federal government's sprawling medical research arm, is taking a more active role in backing projects that harness mobile technology for health purposes.

In 2005, the agency issued fewer than 30 grants for mobile health IT projects, NIH Director Francis Collins said this morning. This year, that number has ballooned to about 150, and is poised to continue to rise, despite the expiration of a large chunk of one-time funding provided through last year's economic stimulus bill.

"We expect these numbers will continue to grow," Collins said. "This is all moving quite rapidly."

Mobile health IT services run the gamut from inexpensive or free apps for a smartphone that can take a measure of the user's vital stats or blood sugar level, for instance, to sophisticated sensor-equipped devices that can relay health or environmental information back to a lab or health-care facility.

For example, Collins described a wearable chemical sensor system that collects information about hydrocarbon and acid vapor levels in the air. The sensors sync that information with a cell phone, which then transmits it back to a lab, where researchers can analyze the data for exposure risks.

That system, Collins said, was developed to monitor for environmental health risks in cities, but has since been deployed in the cleanup response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Here's an example of a technology that was originally designed for assessing exposure in perhaps an urban setting that could also be applied in an environmental disaster," he said.

Advocates of mobile health IT say the applications hold particular promise in developing nations, where wireless networks are often the most widely available communications infrastructure.

Collins discussed a device deployed by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Uganda, where they are collecting treatment-adherence information about HIV patients, remotely monitoring for lapses in patients taking their antiretroviral medication.

"What it is is basically a pill holder which has within it the ability to send a signal every time the pill box is opened. That, then, will tip you off if there has been a lapse in opening the box. That undoubtedly means there is a lapse in taking the pill," he said.

"I hope you get the sense of NIH's commitment to this, which is really quite wide and deep."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

TAGS:

mobile apps, Health IT, mobile health care, NIH, HHS

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