How Smartphones Could Impact Public Health

(Chart via Pew.)

In my latest story in the magazine, “So Appy Together,” I wrote about how our smartphones are getting increasingly smarter, and may be changing what it means to be human in the process. When I set out to do the reporting, the numbers available from PEW’s Internet and American Life Project said that about a third of Americans owned smartphones. Well today they released a new study showing that those numbers have spiked in the past year, and now nearly half of us have these smart little gadgets in our hands. For the first time, smartphone owners now outnumber regular cell phone owners in the country (46 percent vs. 41 percent), and what’s fascinating is that the devices are far more widely distributed than the researchers expected:

Nearly every major demographic group — men and women, younger and middle-aged adults, urban and rural residents, the wealthy and the less well-off — experienced a notable uptick in smartphone penetration over the last year.

This smartphone proliferation has tremendous potential from a public health perspective. When I spoke with Frank Moss at Bluefin Labs for the story, he described a day when doctors would simultaneously prescribe medicine with an app to help patients better monitor their care (you can read more of Moss’s ideas about mobile health in his New York Times op-ed). When you consider that smartphone penetration is already higher in African American and Latino communities (49 percent in each group vs. a national average of 46 percent) and that these two groups are historically disadvantaged when it comes to accessing health care (just browse the February headline roundup from the Kaiser Family Foundation for examples of these disparities), it would be revolutionary to begin targeting health care apps and devices to these populations.

When we consider looking that the gadgets being pushed into the marketplace to help us monitor our health (many of which I tried while reporting the story) we forget that they’re all targeting “fairly affluent people,” says Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, a health economist who often blogs about public health at Health Populi. “When we look at the burden of chronic disease, it’s the African Americans and Latinos, the poor and less-educated, and very old or very young that don’t have access to healthy food or safe places. These populations have spent as much money on their mobile phones [as the rest of the country], but the platform technology hasn’t penetrated into poor urban areas.”

Sarasohn-Kahn hopes that Medicaid will start developing applications to target these populations, and points to the recent move by a former CDC scientist to develop an asthma inhaler outfitted with GPS and Wifi enabled sensors. When distributed in urban populations, the inhalers allow the doctors to better track their patients, and allow epidemiologists to learn more about the health of these groups. Right now, the smartphones are spreading at a rapid clip through the country. We just need to be smart enough to know how to help them nudge us all toward better health.