The Growing Role for Mobile Phones in Public Health

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly 90% of U.S. adults own a mobile phone and more than half of these users own a smartphone. African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are more likely to own mobile phones, have searched for health information using their mobile phone, and downloaded health-related apps compared with Whites. Of smartphone owners in general, 15% have reported using their device to search for health information.  The increased use of personal mobile devices for health information seeking raises interesting opportunities, not just for clinical or medical health, but for public health as well. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has developed several mobile health programs geared toward public health. In addition to mHealth programs described in prior blogs (see Three Approaches to mHealth), we highlight several innovative HHS public health programs here:

  • National Library of Medicine (NLM) has a gallery of mobile apps and mobile-optimized websites to disseminate health information to the public, including “Health Hotlines” and several emergency response apps.  In addition, PubMed Mobile and MedlinePlus Mobile provide the public with access to information on a broad range of topics including wellness and general health news on various mobile platforms.
  • Since 2009, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) has also created mobile-optimized websites where the public can access health information using mobile devices: http://m.cdc.gov/. This complement the CDC Mobile Health Tips SMS program that sends health text messages to those who enroll.
  • CDC partnered with HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA) to create an SMS toolkit for emergency responders to have ready access to disaster-related text messages.
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI) has developed a suite of programs geared toward smoking cessation efforts. For teens and young adults there is Smokefree TXT, a text-based program, and the smartphone app, QuitSTART. Adults can use the Smokefree QuitGuide, a native application which offers similar features. NCI has also developed a mobile-optimized websites, where the public can access cancer information using their mobile devices: m.cancer.gov.

Interestingly, some HHS mobile programs are merging public health with either health care or clinical medicine (i.e., linking the public to clinical services).

  • HRSA’s Find a Health Center is a consumer-facing program/app that allows the public to locate federally funded health center that can provide free or income-sensitive medical services.
  • SAMHSA’s Treatment Locator mobile application also provides the public with location information about mental health and substance abuse centers.
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is working with states to develop mobile-facing initiatives, such as the mobile version of the InsureKidNow.gov web site.

The unprecedented proliferation of mobile phones (both basic cell phones and smartphones) offers important communication channels to disseminate reliable health messages to the public broadly.  With the high rates of mobile phone use among ethnic groups, and the increased adoption of mobile phones among rural populations (smartphone use increased from 21% in May 2011 to 34% in February 2012 according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project), opportunities also exist to target particular communities and subgroups in need with tailored health information using mobile phones.