will mobile health really work?

On the other hand, older adults are less likely to use smartphones. So are people who are sicker, with multiple chronic diseases, says Dr. Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health, a division of Boston’s Partners Healthcare.

Kvedar notes that nearly any phone can handle simpler text-messaging programs. Among the biggest offered to date is the free text4baby, where government-vetted health tips timed to pregnant women’s due dates are texted weekly to about 50,000 participants so far.

Do these kinds of technologies work? There’s some short-term evidence, although no one knows if people stick with it once the novelty wears off:

_In a study of 70 Boston residents to improve cancer-preventing use of sunscreen, Kvedar found daily texts with reminders hooked to the weather forecast for six weeks increased sunscreen use by 40 percent.

_Researchers at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center found episodes of rejection dropped when they texted take-your-medicine reminders to 41 pediatric liver transplant recipients or their caregivers, adding another text nag to the parent if teen patients didn’t quickly respond that they’d taken their dose.

_The University of California, San Diego, went a step further, designing a text-message program to encourage weight loss where participants texted back answers to such questions as “Did you buy fresh raw vegetables to snack on this week?” Answering allowed more customized texted diet tips. In a pilot study of 75 people, text-message recipients lost about four more pounds in four months than those given printed dieting advice.

_The Internet-based approach offers even more two-way interaction. This fall, Quinn will report results of a 260-patient study using a range of Welldoc phone features, including more real-time monitoring of the blood sugar fluctuations users enter. A small Welldoc pilot study found users’ average blood sugar dropped over three months.

“What systems work best with patients has yet to be figured out,” says George Washington’s Katz, who is testing a version of that program, too — and worries not just about affordability when his study is over but whether interest will wane. “Otherwise, they find it’s a nice toy to start with, and forget about it.”

It is wonderful to think about using mobile phones to improve one’s health, and not just to increase one’s productivity, but it looks like there’s a struggle on how to implement it effectively. Maybe there are human ‘needs’ that cannot be answered by technology.

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