Mobile Health Technology Improves Health Outcomes in Children

Lauren Santye, Assistant Editor
Published Online: Monday, March 20th, 2017
Mobile health (mHealth) interventions improve health outcomes among children, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
For the study, investigators analyzed 37 unique studies of mHealth interventions to identify statistical evidence of changes in health behavior or disease control in individuals 18 years or younger.
“The take-home message is that a smartphone can help a child be healthier across a number of health care behaviors, like making sure they get vaccines or eat a healthy diet,” said coauthor Christopher Cushing. “We have some idea that a smartphone and messaging can be a good way to go, but we also have a long way to go to optimize this kind of intervention.”
The findings suggest that health care providers should encourage mobile phone-based technology for their patients.
“mHealth interventions are a promising and potentially effective route for pediatric health care providers to use with patients and their family members,” said lead author David Fedele.
The investigators examined the benefits of all types of mHealth technology, whether simple or more complex, and found no advantage of one kind over another.
“It’s worth using, and there is a lot of different media that can be used,” Cushing said. “mHealth interventions can be as simple as text messages and as complicated as a dedicated app. You can go small and send text messages for vaccine reminders or build an app that allows for diet and physical activity tracking.”
The authors noted that a key finding was that parents should be involved in the technology.
“If they have a young child, they could opt into a scheduling program that would allow them to see those things that are due for the child like a vaccination,” Cushing said. “For an older child, it’s appropriate for the child to take on some autonomy such as engaging with an app where they can set goals and get feedback. But the parent should be engaged in that system so they can use teachable moments. If a child isn’t sure about why they’re not meeting goals, a parent can use adult problem solving to help find an answer.”
Although the findings should be of interest to parents, caregivers, and pediatricians, it should also motivate the technology community. In fact, interventions where parents were involved in mHealth technology had greater health benefits to children.
“If you’re designing technology, design it so parents and children interact around the technology,” Cushing said. “You get a bigger bang for your buck.”
The ubiquity of smartphones today only contributes to the efficacy of mHealth technology. “With an overwhelming percentage of individuals owning or having access to a mobile phone, mHealth interventions can have a greater reach than in-person interventions,” Fedele said.  “Furthermore, mHealth programs can collect dynamic health-related data and deliver intervention content to individuals in their natural environment, outside of a clinical encounter, at key times that have a higher likelihood of modifying behavior.
“An example could be collecting data on percentage of time an individual has spent in sedentary activity and then delivering an individually tailored message to their mobile device promoting them to engage in some sort of physical activity.”
In the future, the investigators plan to examine the efficacy of specific apps on the marketplace.
“Now that we know that these approaches can work, it would be a good idea to learn more about what features are valued by consumers and whether those features appear in commercially available apps,” Cushing concluded.

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