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Canadian Study Finds mHealth Isn’t Serving The Right Populations

A new survey finds that the typical Canadian using an mHealth app or digital health platform is young, healthy, well-educated and well-off. Those aren't the people that will benefit the most from mHealth.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- In a study that mirrors healthcare attitudes in the US, a new survey finds that Canadians who use mHealth apps and digital health devices aren’t the ones who need them the most.

The survey of more than 4,100 Canadians, by the government-funded non-profit Canada Health Infoway, found that roughly one-third of Canadians use mHealth apps on their mobile devices – but a large majority are healthy, well-educated and well-off, meaning they’re using mHealth to stay healthy rather than to deal with a health issue.

In the US as well as Canada, mHealth tools and platforms hold the potential to improve health outcomes for populations who don’t regularly access healthcare – underserved communities like immigrants, the homeless and low-income families – as well as those who should be seeing a doctor more frequently, such as those with chronic conditions and the elderly.

Only 28 percent of Canadians with at least one chronic condition are using mHealth apps or digital health devices, the survey found.

"The findings of the study demonstrate the opportunity Canadians have to be proactive in their overall wellness through the use of mobile apps and smart connected devices such as watches, wristbands or other wearables," Michael Green, president and CEO of Canada Health Infoway, said in a press release accompanying the study.

READ MORE: Using mHealth to Transition to Value-Based Care

According to the study, Canadians who most often use mHealth apps or devices are younger adults, (41 percent), employed (59 percent), university-educated (55 percent), and have an annual family income of at least $80,000 (46 percent).

“The use of mobile health apps is mainly the result of motivations tied to well-being rather than any motivations directly related to health problems,” the report notes. “There is no difference in the self-reported health status of users of mobile health apps, [and] 90 percent of respondents using mobile health apps believe that they are in good, very good or excellent health.”

In essence, Canadian researchers are coming to the same conclusions as their neighbors to the south: mHealth tools and platforms are popular with people who have the motivation and resources to track their health and wellness. The challenge lies in motivating those who would best benefit from the technology, but who aren’t using it.

That hasn’t been easy.

A HealthMine survey of newly insured Americans conducted in 2016 found that about 60 percent are dealing with a chronic condition – but while many have access to digital health tools and workplace wellness programs, only 7 percent are using them for health management.

READ MORE: How to Design and Develop a Mobile Health Application

In some cases, researchers have found that people with chronic conditions see mHealth tools and platforms as components of a wellness or fitness program – it’s more of a luxury or an exercise routine -  and they’re not making the connection to improved clinical outcomes. At other times, it’s an annoyance or a chore.

Not all the blame can be placed on the consumer. A recent study out of the University of California at San Francisco found that many of the most popular apps targeting chronic conditions like diabetes and depression are too difficult to use, especially by underserved populations who would benefit the most from using them. Another study, by Research2Guidance, found that doctors aren’t yet convinced that apps are reliable.

Yet another study, by Accenture, found that health systems aren’t using the right mHealth tools to reach patients.

The Canada Health Infoway survey comes to the conclusion that Canadians don’t understand the value of mHealth apps and devices – including smart and connected home devices and platforms – so they aren’t using them for the most benefit and they aren’t adopting them in large numbers.

“Since the general population of non-users has limited knowledge of the value proposition for mobile apps and smart connected devices for health and well-being, intentions to buy one are also relatively low,” the survey reports. “Only 15 percent of the adults surveyed reported that they intend to buy one in the next 12 months.”

READ MORE: mHealth Games Offer a ‘Fun’ Way to Boost Patient Engagement

That point is also made in the numbers of Canadians – and Americans, for that matter – who share health data gleaned from digital health platforms with their doctors. The Canada Health Infoway study reported that 67 percent of Canadians said they would share information with their doctor upon request; in the US, a Salesforce.com survey found that number to be 78 percent.

The challenge going forward for healthcare providers in both Canada and the US is to target mHealth programs to those who need them the most, and to find a way to bridge that patient engagement gap between uncertainty and understanding.

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