Comprehensive Guide to Mobile Health/Telehealth16 minute read

16 minute read

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Updated for December, 2018

In 2016, the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare released a study revealing the distinct benefits of mobile health technology for the elderly population, and many of them centered on increased dependence. But what is mobile health exactly, and how can it benefit you or a loved one?

mobile health

Even government agencies such as the Veterans Health Administration are regularly using this technology to help promote health and wellness within the populations they serve.

Mobile health, sometimes referred to as “mHealth” or “telehealth,” involves using some type of mobile or wireless device to tend to your healthcare needs.

By definition then, mobile health can mean one of two things:

Obtaining Medical Attention, Information or Advice via Phone, Tablet, or Other Type of Wireless Device

This is often referred to as telemedicine and examples of this type of mobile healthcare would include using an app to meet with your doctor by video, using website-based chat services to obtain medical advice, or accessing your own medical information via a secure online portal provided by your doctor or healthcare system.

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) indicates that telemedicine is “a significant and rapidly growing component of health care in the United States,” with approximately 200 networks and 3,500 service sites in use today. Even government agencies such as the Veterans Health Administration are regularly using this technology to help promote health and wellness within the populations they serve.

Using Wireless Technology to Transmit Health Information to Healthcare Providers for Diagnosis or Treatment Purposes

typing for mobile health

Mobile health is also used to describe heart rate monitors, wearable blood glucose monitors, and other types of devices that enable a healthcare provider to track a patient’s health over a certain period of time without having to keep him or her in a medical care facility. This type of mobile health is used to either help identify whether a particular health issue may exist or to ensure that proper treatment levels are being achieved.

There’s not much worse than being cut off mid appointment only to have to call back and start the whole process over again.

woman having mobile connection issues

Even though there are many benefits to using telemedicine to tend to you or your loved one’s medical needs, there are some cons. Here are a few to consider, courtesy of University of California Berkeley.

Diagnosis Issues

Because you’re simply chatting online or sending in pictures of your medical concern via an app, the doctor’s ability to assess your condition correctly could be somewhat compromised. This may make it harder to get a proper diagnosis and learn what is really going on with you, potentially delaying effective treatment or much worse.

Lack of Personalized Care

When you see the same doctor in person for a number of years, he or she has the opportunity to really get to know you. Subsequently, you get to know him or her as well, so you start to develop a level of trust. This type of bond and trust can be lost with mobile health options, especially if you get a different healthcare practitioner each time you use the application.

Connectivity Issues

If you’re talking to your doctor via video, you need a steady internet connection or you’re going to run into trouble. Besides, there’s not much worse than being cut off mid appointment only to have to call back and start the whole process over again. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you aren’t feeling well. 

older man on phone and tablet

As a patient or prospective patient, you may be wondering what types of conditions can potentially be diagnosed, monitored, and treated via the telehealth approach. While every application and device is different, here are a few health issues that some practitioners are capable of addressing remotely:

Type of Care Needed

Health Conditions

Urgent or Acute Care

Allergies, back pain, bronchitis, cellulitis, colds, conjunctivitis, diarrhea, flu, headache, migraine, pneumonia, rashes, sinus infections, skin infections or anomalies, sprains, urinary tract infections, and vomiting

Chronic Condition Care

Acne, allergies, asthma, cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes and pre-diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypertension, lung diseases, metabolic syndrome, and thyroid conditions

Preventative Care

Metabolic syndrome, smoking cessation, and weight loss counseling

Men’s & Women’s Health

Family planning, menopause, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), prenatal care, prostate screening, sexual dysfunctions, and vaginal or yeast infections

Health Monitoring Services

Various health conditions including anemia, chronic diseases, inflammation, fatigue, fertility, sleep issues, sexually transmitted diseases, thyroid, and vision in addition to determining whether prescription drug and/or vitamin levels are at healthy and/or therapeutic levels

Mental Health Care

Counseling, mood disorders, stress management

If you download an app and input all of your blood pressure readings for the last six months, that information is not protected under HIPAA.

checking vitals over mobile phone

HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which was created to ensure that patients’ private medical information is protected as much as legally possible. Traditionally, this has involved actions that healthcare agencies must take in office-type settings, but it now has applications in the online space as well.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has created a web page specifically for health apps and HIPAA rules. On this page, the OCR shares that the only HIPAA-covered entities are “health plans, health care clearinghouses and most health care providers” and their business associates. These include their vendors, subcontractors, and web and app developers. Essentially, anyone who works for or with healthcare companies is required to not discuss or disclose your personal medical information.

However, when it comes to applications where the individual inputs his or her information directly—essentially managing the app without any involvement of a healthcare provider—HIPAA does not apply. For instance, if you download an app and input all of your blood pressure readings for the last six months, that information is not protected under HIPAA.

In short, if the application you use is provided by a HIPAA-covered entity, your medical data is protected. But if the application is one wherein you populate the data yourself and it operates completely independently from your healthcare providers, your data is not protected.

Which apps work best if what you want most is maximum physical health?

mobile health applications

Mobile health apps can generally be divided into two basic categories. One set is full of apps related to improving physical health, and the second set features those used to enhance mental health. So, what are the best ones?

Best Physical Health Apps

Which apps work best if what you want most is maximum physical health? The answer to this question depends largely on your goals. With that in mind, here are some of the most common goals and the top clinically rated apps that can help achieve them: 

Goal App
Exercise more often FitBit
Eat healthier, manage your weight Noom
Manage your stress Headspace
Quit smoking Clickotine
Drink less alcohol Drinkaware
Manage your type 2 diabetes BlueStar
Manage your asthma Propeller

You can also do a search for the best apps based on the device you intend to use. For instance, Android Authority shares the 10 best health apps to use if you have an Android, whereas Wearable offers a list of mobile health apps that work in conjunction with the Apple Health app that comes standard on most iPhones and iPads.

Top Mental Health Apps

If you’d like to address your mental health remotely, you can do that too. In the following chart, you can see some of the top-rated mental health apps, separated by whether they are free or if they require either a one-time payment or a regular subscription fee:

App Type Free Apps Premium Apps
General Mental Health What’s Up Mood Kit
Addiction Quit That! Twenty-Four Hours a Day
Anxiety

Mind Shift

Self-Help for Anxiety Management (SAM)

CBT Thought Record Diary (Android or iOS)

 
Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder Connect

Stigma

IMoodJournal
Depression

Happify

MoodTools

Talkspace Online Therapy
Eating Disorders

Recovery Record

Rise Up and Recover

Lifesum

 
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder nOCD

Worry Watch

Live OCD Free

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD Coach

Breathe2Relax

 
Schizophrenia UCSF PRIME (Android or iOS)  
Stress Calm Headspace
Suicide Prevention MY3  

virtual mobile health visit

What if you want an app that can connect you directly to a doctor? According to Healthline, there are seven telemedicine apps that are top of the line, and they are:

  • MDLIVE: You can usually get a doctor online in less than 15 minutes with this app.
  • LiveHealth Online: This app offers board-certified doctors, therapists, and dieticians, some of whom are fluent in Spanish.
  • Express Care Virtual: This app accepts insurance and doctor visits are $39 each.
  • Amwell: Connect with a doctor, dietitian, or psychologist of your choice on this app.
  • First Opinion: Offers free chatting and you’re assigned a dedicated doctor and team so you talk to the same people every time.
  • MyTeleMed: Your doctor has a dedicated phone number so you can leave a detailed message for him or her and your call will be returned after the message has been reviewed.
  • Lemonaid: From receiving a diagnosis to getting a prescription, you can do it all on this app. The online consultations are $25 each and any meds prescribed can either be delivered or picked up at a local pharmacy.

This insurance program will also pay for videoconferencing and remote patient monitoring.

Seniors Bills Fraud

The ATA shares that insurance will sometimes cover the costs associated with telemedicine. For instance, Medicare will usually pay for telehealth options that fall under “physician services,” such as those related to remote radiology, pathology, and cardiology services. In certain cases, this insurance program will also pay for videoconferencing and remote patient monitoring.

When it comes to private insurance plans, the ATA reports that 34 states and the District of Columbia currently require private insurance companies to pay for telehealth services the same way they do in-person services. However, it’s always best to check with your individual provider so you know the exact mobile healthcare coverage for your specific medical insurance plan.

Are there any additional costs you should be aware of with regard to other services, such as if you need a prescription called in?

talking to a telehealth doctor

With so many different web and mobile-based applications available, it may feel overwhelming to know which one to choose. To find the one that works the best for you or a loved one, it helps to consider these factors:

Cost

How much does the application cost to use or download? What are the costs if you want to speak with a doctor? Are there any additional costs you should be aware of with regard to other services, such as if you need a prescription called in?

Ease of Use

How easy is the application to open and use? Does it have a logical flow or do you find yourself getting lost while moving through the application? Does it crash often?

Communication Types

What options does the application offer for getting and keeping in touch with the healthcare professionals on staff? How can you communicate with them? Is it via video, audio, by chat, or text message?

Wait Time

If you request an online medical appointment, how long does it take to connect with a doctor or other medical professional?

Connection Quality

Once you’re connected with a healthcare professional, is the quality of the connection good? Can you hear each other okay? If it is by video, are you able to talk without the screen freezing?

Doctor-related Considerations

Are you connected to the same doctor every time or do you get a new practitioner with each new call?

Language

If your native language is not English, does the app offer the ability to speak with a doctor who is fluent in your first language?

If your injury is severe enough to require immediate medical intervention to prevent severe damage or loss of life, mobile health is absolutely not the best option.

older woman visiting with doctor

Even though mobile health is a great way to get medical care without having to take a trip to an actual doctor’s office, there are some instances in which an online doctor isn’t your best option.

For instance, and this may be obvious, but Doctor on Demand says that it cannot treat you if you have multiple broken bones, are experiencing chest pain, are coughing up blood, have lacerations, have experienced a loss of consciousness, need help dealing with pediatric ear infections, have suffered severe burns, or if you have a spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury.

Essentially, if your illness or injury requires that a doctor perform some type of procedure for your diagnosis or treatment, you need to go to a doctor’s physical office. Additionally, if your injury is severe enough to require immediate medical intervention to prevent severe damage or loss of life, mobile health is absolutely not the best option.

However, if you’re battling a recurring or chronic issue, or have a minor illness or injury, then telehealth may be a suitable and more convenient alternative. And with all of the options available in the mobile health space today, you have many choices when it comes to choosing the best telehealth provider for you.

Sources:

journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1357633X16649790
www.americantelemed.org/main/about/telehealth-faqs-
www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/physician-visits.htm
ftp.cdc.gov/pub/Health_Statistics/NCHS/NHIS/SHS/2016_SHS_Table_A-18.pdf
www.statista.com/statistics/779910/health-apps-available-ios-worldwide/
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4391303/
www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/cb14-218.html
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4351276/
www.commonwealthfund.org/press-release/2016/new-11-country-health-care-survey-us-adults-skip-care-due-costs-struggle
www.vitals.com/about/portfolio/wait-time-report-2017
www.insideedition.com/investigative/25692-are-dangerous-germs-lurking-in-your-doctors-office-investigation-puts-waiting-rooms-to-the-test
www.americantelemed.org/main/about/about-telemedicine/telemedicine-benefits
www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-community/health-care-policy/article/telemedicine-right-you
www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/laws-regulations/index.html
hipaaqsportal.hhs.gov/
www.androidauthority.com/best-health-apps-for-android-668268/
www.wareable.com/apple/apps-that-work-with-apple-health-kit-compatible
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www.lemonaidhealth.com/
www.doctorondemand.com/what-we-treat/medical