Few use mobile phones to access health info
■ Experts say the high number of cell phone and wireless device owners signals that the information will become more mobile.
By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Nov. 8, 2010
Despite the proliferation of cell phones in the United States, the number of people using them to access health information is low. But experts believe the sheer number of people using mobile phones and wireless devices means that health information eventually will get more mobile as well.
According to the report "Mobile Health 2010," released Oct. 19, 85% of the American population uses mobile phones, but only 17% of cell phone owners have used them to look up health information, and only 9% have used them to download a software application, or app, related to health. The survey reported that 40% of cell phone users have direct Internet access, and 35% have downloaded an app.
The numbers were based on a survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project in association with the California HealthCare Foundation. The survey encompassed 3,001 adults, including 2,485 cell phone users.
The report's author, Susannah Fox, associate director for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, wrote that even with "the proliferation of mobile and online opportunities ... most adults' search for health information remains anchored in the offline world." She cited a previous Pew survey finding that 57% of people used the Internet for health information, but 86% asked their doctors for guidance and 68% turned to family members.
"[T]he Internet plays a growing but still supplemental role -- and mobile connectivity has not changed that."
However, Fox wrote that more people are turning to the Internet for health information, especially if they use wireless devices, including laptops. Pew found that 78% of wireless Internet users have looked online for health information, compared with 70% of Internet users with desktop access and 59% of all adults.
To Fox, this means that mobile phone use for health might be lagging behind overall adoption of the technology, but that won't remain the case.
"This means that health-information searches and communications have joined the growing array of nonvoice data applications that are being bundled into cell phones," Fox wrote.
Fox said that because this is the first year Pew looked at mobile phone use, there's no trend data to analyze to make predictions. But Fox is looking forward to researching the effects that the combination of the "mobile difference" -- Pew's term for wireless users' greater interest in health information -- and the "diagnosis difference" -- the trend of chronically ill patients being more likely to use mobile devices -- will have in the future.
Tia McKinney, founder of the Minority Health Care Coalition, said the lack of mobile use could be explained by the fact that the majority of Americans are insured and generally feel in good health.
That might explain why minorities are more likely than whites to use mobile health apps and look up health information from a mobile device, she said. According to the Pew survey, 15% of black cell phone users and 11% of Hispanics had downloaded health-related apps, compared with 7% of whites. Meanwhile, 25% of Hispanics and 19% of blacks had used a mobile phone to look up health information. The figure for whites was 15%.
Minorities are affected by chronic illnesses at a disproportionate rate and are more at risk of being uninsured, McKinney said.
An analysis of the March 2009 U.S. Census Current Population Survey by the Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured found that 32% of the nonelderly uninsured population is Hispanic, and 32% of Hispanics are at risk of being uninsured; 15% of the uninsured are blacks and 21% of the black population is at risk of being uninsured. Non-Hispanic whites make up 46% of the uninsured, and 13% are at risk of being uninsured.
Other demographic groups stood out in their use of mobile phones for health care. Younger cell phone users were more likely than older ones to look up health information and download health apps. Those 18 to 29 years old led all demographic groups in using their cell phones for looking up health information, with 29% doing so. That group, at 15%, tied with blacks for the demographic most likely to download health apps.
The Pew survey found that use of mobile phones for health care went up along with levels of income and education. Urban dwellers also were most likely to use their mobile devices for health information.
Iltifat Husain, a fourth-year MD/MPH student at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., who helps write the blog iMedicalApps, was encouraged by the survey results.
"I feel like mobile health is very much in its infancy right now," he said. "Even in its infancy, we've seen one in 10 people using health apps."
Husain said there probably are more people -- especially minority and low-income patients -- who use mobile devices for health information or tracking but are not using traditional mobile apps. He pointed to a PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) study saying that Medicaid recipients were the most active senders of text messages among both the insured and the uninsured.
The Pew survey found that seven in 10 cell phone users send or receive text messages on their phones, while only one in four use software apps on their phones. A Nielsen survey published in September found that in the previous 30 days, 59% of smartphone users had downloaded at least one app, with games and weather the leading categories.
Husain said many smartphone users might not be aware of health apps that could benefit them. He said he often sees patients entering information into their smartphones after an exam. When asked what app they are using, many times it's not an app but rather an electronic note.
Husain suggested doctors be involved in recommending mobile tools to patients. He said if a significant impact is to be made by mobile technology, physicians must remember that not every patient has the most sophisticated device. "The person paying 100-plus dollars for the iPhone isn't necessarily the demographic you are aiming for," he said.