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Hmm, you do look ill. I prescribe a good dose of mobile data

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Adopting "mobile health" - the use of mobile technology as an interface between health providers and patients - could apparently save the EU €100bn by 2017, and make us €93bn too, if only governments would get out of the way and let it happen.

That's according to beancounters PwC who were hired by mobile industry body GSMA to create an economic case for mobile health applications. The accountants have utilised the old favourites of manipulation and extrapolation to do what they were paid to do, despite the lack of empirical evidence that iPhones can make us feel better.

Mobile Health is all the rage right now, partly because the pioneers of mobile telecommunications are feeling their own mortality these days and partly 'cos there's still plenty of money in healthcare while other European budgets are shrinking.

The gold rush of mHealth pilots has recently led to a total ban on new projects in Uganda, and a partial ban in South Africa, as governments struggle to control the tsunami of well-intentioned charities rocking up with a case of iPhones and the expectation that locals will welcome whatever half-baked scheme they have in mind.

But the GSMA reckons Europe remains ripe for an mHealth explosion, and is using these numbers (€100bn saved and €93bn gained annually from 2017) to justify its demand for greater government investment in the use of mobile phones in healthcare.

Those numbers (pdf, densely packed in slide form) are based on the premise that reminding people to take their medicine, by text or e-mail, will improve their health. The PwC assumption is that half of those getting mobile prompts will do better, reducing the burden on doctors and hospitals.

But that assumption ignores the evidence from various studies which found prompting achieved little or no improvement, such as the Dutch study last December:

"We found some, albeit very limited, indications that in certain cases mobile phone messaging interventions may provide benefit in supporting the self-management of long-term illnesses. However, there are significant information gaps regarding the long-term effects, acceptability, costs, and risks of such interventions."

Despite that PwC reckons prompting patients will reduce the cost of care by at least 30 per cent, 45 per cent if the patent is old, and that's just the start.

Doctors will apparently get 30 per cent more time, thanks to being able to look stuff up on their phones rather than using that nice big monitor they have in the consulting room, and there'll be fewer patients anyway as our phones start pestering us to take more exercise resulting in an astounding drop in chronic diseases and lifestyle disorders of between 50 and 73 per cent.

That's the €100bn in savings taken care of, and the €93bn of additional income results from all those healthy people contributing to the economy. Once our phones are telling us when to exercise, what to eat and which pills to take, why, then we'll hardly need doctors at all - according to the accountants from PwC.

There is some truth in the GSMA's arguments that we need greater government engagement in an ongoing adoption of handheld tech in the medical community. The £1.59 iPhone app, already being used in A&E to calculate drug dosages, demonstrates where an unregulated open market can lead, but these days the separation of mobile and other IT seems increasingly artificial - health departments need policies on software and hardware, not mobile and fixed.

The GSMA represents the mobile network operators, so obviously it sees things differently. It wants to promote mHealth as a trending topic, and the promise of €100bn in savings should do that even if the truth is rather less exciting. ®

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