Last week, the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution presented a paper and hosted a panel discussion on how mobile technology can decrease the cost and improve the quality of health care in the United States and China.  The presenters noted, however, that significant policy and legal challenges face the telemedicine industry in both countries.

In the United States, providers have started to use mobile technology to more efficiently and effectively deliver care, particularly for populations with chronic illnesses that require regular monitoring and interaction with health care professionals.  In a pilot program at the Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona, 50 patients with congestive heart failure were given mobile devices to monitor their vital signs and exchange information with their health care team.   Darrel West of Brookings and Gigi Sorenson of the Flagstaff Medical Center reported on the program’s success — costs and emergency room utilization decreased for the pilot population.  Ms. Sorenson reported that Flagstaff Medical Center is now expanding its use of mobile technology outside of the pilot program.

Telemedicine also holds significant promise in China, according to panelists Xiaohui Yu and Haihua Li of the China Academy of Telecommunication.  Most notably, mobile technology can play an important role in addressing the disparity in access to health care between China’s urban and rural areas.  Telemedicine presents an opportunity to connect individuals living in rural areas to China’s health care providers, most of whom are located in urban centers.  Cell phone ownership rates in rural China are approaching 80%, and expanding broadband access in rural areas is already a major priority for the Chinese government.

The panelists also discussed the challenges in using mobile technology in health care.  Product development is in its early stages, and questions remain about usability, privacy, and security.  Further, in the United States, most uses of mobile technology are not yet reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid.  Similarly, the panelists noted that the Chinese government has yet to develop a comprehensive strategy to facilitate the use and regulation of mobile technology in health care.