mHealth Summit 2014 – An Emblematic Cacophony

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By Claire Topal and Susan Williams


A striking cacophony of aspirations—around interoperability, innovation, streamlined regulation, better health outcomes, lower costs, and empowered patients—reverberated throughout the halls of the DC area’s Gaylord Convention Center. From December 7-11, the 2014 mHealth Summit dominated the vast indoor universe of the massive complex, convening nearly 4,000 people from all walks of the health and technology sectors around the mobile health refrain.

Hundreds of speakers shared perspectives on thousands of themes. Data in countless forms illustrated the disconnect between the consumer embrace of health-related technology and its uncomfortable, disjointed adoption in clinical settings. A chorus of lamentation and frustration around the now age-old interoperability problem (the need for it, and the cost and apparent impossibility of it) coupled with a near dismissal of the power and responsibility of government and education, dampened feelings of moving forward – of progress. Several sessions noted the value of clear incentives for behavior change, highlighting the gulf between a concrete understanding of what those incentives are and how to link the technology directly.

The proliferation of sessions, themes, and innovators compared to the Summit’s past years is emblematic of a transition on the mHealth field. Perhaps the term “mHealth” is no longer sufficiently concrete to anchor a core community with a clear call to action.

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn said in a reflection of the Summit, “Mobile is increasingly seen (correctly) as just another mode of care delivery – so on the #mHealth14 Twitter feed, a dominant observation is that connected health, mobile health, and digital health are just… health.”

mHealthPanelWeb5Indeed, mobile technology has moved from being simply a nifty attachment tool or process to a driving force of transformation in the healthcare ecosystem. As Mayo’s Steve Lester told us earlier this year, it’s not about the technology; rather “it’s about a combination of the physiological information that is available about each of us through increasingly ubiquitous biosensors, as well as … virtual connectivity…”

The role and importance of mobile and digital health technology is exploding, but the corresponding evidence to inform our understanding of what improves health outcomes while also lowering costs has not kept pace—not even close. Perhaps the reason for that is because we are looking for evidence in the wrong places. It’s not a question of data – that we have in droves. The real challenge is in validating that data, in synthesizing it into quantifiable outcomes to facilitate clinical decision-making and outcomes, and then measuring those outcomes against costs.

A mobile health game designer told us “There doesn’t need to be any more innovation. It’s more about paying attention to what exists already and making small, meaningful tweaks to that. The challenge is to think harder and smarter while refraining from adding to the clutter of apps, wearables, sensors, and software.” His comments reinforce Greg Downing of HHS’s warnings to us about innovating for today’s health ecosystem; he says we need to grow what works rather than starting with system-wide overhauls.

Our December 10th panel at the Summit, “Validating Data to Reinvent Medicine,” unpacked Project HoneyBee’s disease- and device-agnostic data validation model, featuring personal reflections and admonitions from ASU’s Michael Birt, HHS’s Bryan Sivak, ASU/Mayo’s Jim Levine, ASU’s Teri Pipe, Providence Health’s Dan Dixon, and RWJF’s Mike Painter.

mHealthPanelWeb3Our conclusion: the conference community’s faith in technology seemed much greater than its faith in itself, in government, or in the health sector’s capacity for unity. Fortunately, there no shortage of hope, individual energy, and creativity. In short, starting points toward a brighter future abound. Our call to action now is to iterate, join forces, and make decisions based on evidence as well as aspiration.

Please check out our piece on this event here.

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