Are Cloud-Based Mobile Health Applications the Secret to PPACA Efficiency?

As 2014 approaches, hospitals are faced with the challenge of meeting the growing demand of those newly insured under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The government has estimated that because of the PPACA, upwards of 500,000 uninsured individuals will gain coverage.1

Even with this new demand, the number of clinicians and hospitals will likely remain the same. This means that hospitals must continue to do the same, if not better, with the resources they have at their disposal. How is this possible? Mobile applications may be the answer to efficiency in the healthcare industry as the PPACA goes into effect.

Healthcare already has an established practice of employing devices for diagnostics and monitoring. But now, the multi-functional, multi-purpose device that is the smartphone is allowing healthcare organizations to deploy applications focused on healthcare management and patient care and targeted at improving patient outcomes and increasing efficiency within hospitals that are already overextended. Frost & Sullivan has published a report based on a survey of 1,835 healthcare professionals in the U.S. who believe mHealth will be the biggest growth area in Healthcare in 2014.2 An article in Fierce Mobile IT states, "The mHealth market is forecast by Allied Market Research to increase at a 32.3 percent compound annual growth rate, reaching $58.8 billion by 2020."3

Several seemingly unconnected trends are beginning to converge.

1. First, the mainstream adoption of smart phones means that patients — and their support network of friends and family — are becoming connected to more sophisticated technology than ever before. Clinicians themselves are similarly connected and tech-savvy, resulting in a common platform between the two.

2. Second, the ability to integrate patient, clinical and third-party data with device features is enabling new "action" possibilities along with innovative ways to improve the efficiency of healthcare delivery and patient engagement.

3. Finally, as healthcare organizations embrace cloud computing, there is a growing recognition that cloud models can be as secure and stable as on-premise systems.

The use of mHealth applications and cloud technology is assisting patients and healthcare administrators alike in more ways than ever thought imaginable. Here are five best practices to consider for deploying, operating, scaling and managing mHealth deployments to increase efficiency as the PPACA brings in more insured patients:

1. Simplify access to patient and administrative information. The phenomenon of consumerization is giving rise to new forms of patient engagement, administrative simplification, collaboration, research support and more. The consumer-like interface and user experience of mHealth apps benefit the patients' interactions with healthcare providers, while enabling services to be delivered in a more timely, effective and targeted fashion.

In terms of patient engagement, mHealth apps can use peripheral sensors to connect to and manage devices. Built-in smartphone and tablet functionality — such as the camera, microphone or speaker — can capture physiological data for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes. This can enable healthcare to be delivered in new ways — performing patient-specific analysis or providing tr­­eatment protocol recommendations, for example.

Providing appropriate access to healthcare data has long been a challenge. Powerful mHealth apps are able to connect and exchange information with one or several legacy backend healthcare systems all while remaining secure and compliant to HIPAA and other regulatory and security requirements.

With the adoption of cloud computing and new software tools, secure and compliant connectivity between device and data can be greatly simplified. New approaches utilize the cloud to create a connection point to internal systems so that patient or other healthcare data can be moved, managed and integrated in ways that were previously unimaginable. As such, the cloud provides a secure "meeting point" for data, making it more readily accessible, available and actionable within or beyond a health delivery setting.

2. Accelerate mobile app time-to-market. Consumerization has also created a high demand for shrinking the time-to-market for mobile apps, placing pressure on app developers to bring apps on stream quickly while continuing to ensure a consumer-like experience and intuitive interface. In this sense, healthcare is no different and is facing pressure to deploy mHealth apps to different user groups across multiple devices and form factors and connected to numerous healthcare data systems, all while adhering to strict compliance and security requirements. While this seems like a daunting task, next-generation mobile and software technologies have become more open and agile to support easier, faster and sophisticated app development.

Hybrid app development, for example, allows code to be developed once and made available to a number of different devices. Neat functionality such as app forms enables a hospital admission form to be created in a matter of minutes and with little additional coding. Compare this to the old school way of doing things, where complex user interfaces for patient data may have required months of development, implementation and training.

As for the complexity of integrating internal or third-party healthcare data with the app, this has also been revolutionized by mobile and cloud technologies. The cloud-side functionality of mobile app platforms can provide the required APIs and plugins to quickly and easily connect to healthcare data and act as a proxy between proprietary healthcare systems and the mobile device, without compromising security and compliance. The intersection of cloud and mobile technologies is turning healthcare app development on its head and transforming what was once a lengthy implementation cycle into a world of apps that can be created in a matter of days or weeks, with continuous development cycles and updates pushed from the cloud.

3. Enable clinical and administrative innovation. Streamlining administrative processes within healthcare organizations has been an ongoing challenge. Mobile devices allow for direct and targeted interactions with employees, contracted clinicians and other authorized personnel. This can enable a full range of administrative activities and reporting to be carried out, such as bed management, supply management, purchase processing and scheduling. Clever use of the cloud can greatly simplify administrative processes. As point solutions designed to solve a very specific healthcare challenge, mHealth apps aren't intended to replace legacy healthcare IT software but to provide a proxy to connect healthcare IT systems to mobile devices. This offers the opportunity for health institutions to unleash data from different systems and deliver it to health workers through an intuitive mobile app interface.

4. Reach the widest audience quickly. In the world of mobile, healthcare providers need to focus on creating the best patient experience on any device so they can reach patients at any location. The bottom line is each user group or application has different requirements. Administrative or clinical processes, for example, may need the app to focus on creating efficiency and supporting greater collaboration within the healthcare network. The type of app developed (whether hybrid or native), the devices supported and the app features need to fit the goals of the user group and the purpose. Consider the benefits of hybrid app development: This approach allows code to be developed once but pushed out simultaneously to a broad range of different devices and operating systems, greatly increasing the speed of cross-platform app development, and allows the health organization to reach a wider range of users.

Knowing the audience for an mHealth app and designing for the needs of that audience is essential. Having the flexibility to upgrade as well means the organizations apps can respond quickly and easily to change.

5. Ensure security and compliance end-to-end. Within a healthcare ecosystem, partners, vendors, patients and clinicians can quickly and easily share images, health information, location and any other information in a secure and authorized way by combining smart device features with relevant data on the go. Secure access to patient and other health data is fundamental to mHealth app functionality. The cloud provides a centralized approach that simplifies secure connectivity and management of the data from multiple healthcare IT sources.

Mobile app platforms designed for the rigors of compliance, integration and security in a healthcare setting use the cloud to serve as a central point to store, access, sync, orchestrate and secure data. These cloud-based platforms can even simplify the unleashing of data from proprietary healthcare systems designed in pre-mobile days.

Besides secure access to sensitive healthcare data, user authorization and authentication vary at different levels within any healthcare setting and need to be mapped accordingly to data access and authorization on the app itself. Tracking, monitoring, upgrading and remote-wiping are critical aspects of mobile app management for any healthcare organization looking to adhere to privacy regulations while also maximizing the return on their mobility investment.

The future will bring new technologies, new mobile apps and new medical devices. Choosing a cloud-based mobile app platform that is open and flexible enough to support the speed, agility and innovation of mHealth initiatives will position a healthcare organization to deliver improved quality care to a greater number of patients, wherever they are in the healthcare system, and at a lower cost. Next generation cloud, mobile, data and software technologies can unleash these efficiencies while also putting patient engagement, affordability and compliance center stage.

A serial entrepreneur, Cathal McGloin has experience with startup ventures in IT and telecoms, including Performix Technologies, which he founded, as well as Aran Technologies, where he was president/VP of sales. He is an engineer with MBA and has experience in the U.S., Europe, Ireland and UK markets. His previous enterprise IT career was with Siemens, Germany and Cap Gemini, UK. He is currently based in Boston.

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1. Horowitz, J. (December 5, 2013). Health Care 101: The Compltete Rundown of Obamacare You’ve Been Looking For. Retrieved from http://www.policymic.com/articles/75475/health-care-101-the-complete-rundown-of-obamacare-you-ve-been-looking-for
2. Donovan, F. (2013, December). FierceMobileIT. Retrieved from http://www.fiercemobileit.com/story/mhealth-will-be-top-growth-area-healthcare-next-year-says-frost/2013-12-05?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal
3. Donovan, F. (2013, December). FierceMobileIT. Retrieved from http://www.fiercemobileit.com/story/mhealth-will-be-top-growth-area-healthcare-next-year-says-frost/2013-12-05?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal

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