Monday, March 29, 2010


Everybody’s talking about mHealth, the use of mobile devices to improve health and healthcare.

“mHealth will replace the web”

“What’s your mHealth strategy?”

“How does SMS map to your mHealth initiative?”

But I think the focus on mHealth may be misplaced. Mobile devices will certainly enable us to increase the reach of our current efforts, and they will help us do valuable things we couldn’t do before. But focusing on the mobile devices themselves creates a big, all-too-familiar risk.

We risk basing our strategy and actions on the technology, rather than focusing on our users and our mission, and then looking for ways that technology can help.

So I propose a new buzz word to replace mHealth:

Let’s talk about uHealth.

I saw the phrase knocked around a bit a few years ago, but it didn’t stick and there doesn’t seem to be a commonly accepted definition, so I’ll try to bend the jargon to my message. Here’s what I mean by uHealth:

uHealth means health and healthcare that is…

  • ubiquitous
  • universal
  • user-centered

Mobile technologies can help with all three.

Ubiquitous Health

The most obvious benefit of mobile technologies are that they can help promote health anytime, anywhere. We can connect people with their data, their care team, their peer support, and their information regardless of where or when they are needed.

This isn’t ultimately about having access when you’re on the road. It’s about having access on the road, in the clinic, at home, at work. It’s about access via my iPhone, my home phone, my PC, my television, my physician in person, my self-care book, and any other mechanisms that I choose. Mobile health shouldn’t stand alone—it should be an integral part of a larger ubiquitous network of support.

Universal Health

How can we use mobile technologies to extend the reach of our health support systems to those who are currently left out? In the near future, more people worldwide will use mobile devices than tethered PCs to access the Internet. Key underserved groups currently use mobile phones more than desktop PCs, and they use them to stay connected with the people, culture, and information they value.

So as we plan what to do with mobile, we need to be very clear from the beginning that this is so much more than an opportunity to give rich people even more—it’s an opportunity to level the playing field, cross the digital divide, and reach the people who most need help. This sensibility needs to impact everything from feature choices to technology platforms (e.g., texting vs. iPhone apps) to payment structures (how much does that data plan cost? Who pays for the SMS?).

User-Centered Health

It’s not mobile-centered health or technology-centered health—it’s user-centered health. As we look for strategic and practical ways to take advantage of what mobile offers, we need to see mobile in the context of a person’s everyday life. What’s important to each individual? How can this fit into their daily workflow? What big problems to they have that mobile can help us solve?

The principles of user-centered design will ultimately be our most powerful tools for helping us leverage technologies to improve health. If it doesn’t work from the perspective of the consumer/patient/end-user, then it doesn’t work.

And that’s my soapbox proposing the increased use of a new buzzword. mHealth can only become valuable in the context of uHealth. Mobile initiatives need to support health that is ubiquitous, universal, and user-centered.