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Mobile Health Apps That Share

A project aims to collect data from apps, potentially enabling new kinds of health research.

A set of tools for building cell-phone apps that collect health-related information aims to change the way health information is stored, shared, and used.

The Open mHealth project, developed at UCLA and UCSF, provides technology for  health apps that transmit a variety of data to the project’s central data warehouse. This data can include information entered by users and also such things as smart-phone GPS- and accelerometer-tracking information. One pilot project, for instance, is studying the diet, stress, movement, and exercise patterns of overweight new mothers. Users have control over what data is captured and get to choose with whom it is shared. Hospitals, health-care providers, and startup companies could design additional apps to draw on the data.

Mobile phones are increasingly used to track illness and promote wellness, but for the most part, this occurs by way of a patchwork of incompatible applications doing different jobs, says Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science, director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a researcher on Open mHealth. “Right now, most of the mobile health applications send data back to a proprietary website which could sell the information back to you or to others.”

Estrin says sharing mobile health data could help advance medical research: “When people share components of the infrastructure, there is more rapid innovation than when people are working separately to reinvent the wheel.”

She gives the example of inviting patients prescribed antidepressants to take part in a research study via a phone app. This would track side effects and levels of depression and activity, and send the information to a physician to review before forwarding it to the study. If only one out of every 250 U.S. patients for whom antidepressants have been prescribed took part, the study would still include more than 100,000 subjects.

The Open mHealth project has already launched five apps and related pilot studies.The one for overweight new mothers collects GPS and accelerometer data from their smart phones, together with information users enter about their diet and stress levels. “We actually redesigned this app after we heard from some of the new moms,” says Estrin. “We added a stress button on the phone—when a participant is feeling stressed, she taps the button and it registers her time and location.”

To protect users’ privacy, the Open mHealth project developed a feature called the personal data vault, which holds the data being collected and analyzed. The user can choose to delete things from the data vault or set filters so the phone does not monitor behavior during certain times of the day.

It should be possible for health-care organizations to use the Open mHealth infrastructure and add functions on top of it to analyze the data and send it out to third parties, such as a clinician, says Dr. Michael Swiernik, director of medical informatics at the University of California, Los Angeles, who also works on the project. Swiernik says that ultimately such data might be integrated into users’ electronic medical records.

According to some experts, the project may prove easier to implement outside the United States. “The success of Open mHealth hinges on its ability to integrate with other software and hardware such as point-of-care devices and a back-end electronic medical record,” says Leo Anthony Celi, a physician and researcher at MIT who is creating open-source mobile medical protocols for developing countries. “In the U.S., a vast majority of this software and hardware is proprietary.” 

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