By Alex Cheng

I was honored to have the opportunity to attend the Mobile Health (mHealth) conference sponsored by the South Big Data Innovation Hub and the National Consortium for Data Science as a third-year graduate student in biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University. My research focuses on using mHealth technology to improve the efficiency of outpatient clinic operations and the quality of care for patients.  One of the biggest challenges in the advancement of mHealth research is standards development. Although consumer health devices such as sleep monitors and activity trackers collect patient health information, regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been reluctant to implement standards for these devices. Putting rules in place for these low acuity devices would be a major burden on the FDA and potentially stifle innovation in this rapidly developing field. Nevertheless, for healthcare providers and researchers to trust information that comes from mHealth devices and applications, some standards need to be put in place. These standards must be developed through industry rather than through the government.

Luckily, in healthcare there are many standards that have been developed through industry collaboration and have successfully improved the reliability and reproducibility of healthcare research. One example of such a standard is DICOM, which is now almost universally accepted by equipment manufacturers, software developers, and healthcare organizations for standardizing how medical images are handled and shared. Since the implementation of DICOM, research in radiology and informatics can cross institutional and device manufacturer lines. Technology in mHealth also needs such standards in place to realize a significant impact on research. For example, to reach conclusions that are based on mHealth data, researchers must know that a heart rate reading from one fitness band brand is comparable to a reading from a different band taken at another institution. If industry and healthcare organizations come together to develop standards for mHealth, device manufacturers and application developers will have to comply to the standards to stay competitive in their respective markets.

During the mHealth meeting, one of the major themes identified by the participants was the challenge of integrating heterogeneous sources of data into clinically useful information. Some of the specific challenges include how to manage missing data, messy data, and unstructured data in a way that is beneficial to patients and clinicians. If members of the commercial and academic communities come together to work on standard data models, we can avoid many of the problems with data interoperability discussed during the workshop. Therefore, it is imperative moving forward that researchers, clinicians, application developers, and equipment manufacturers maintain open communication to develop standards for mHealth technology, ensuring that the data is reliably useful in research and in improving patient care. 

Alex Cheng is a third-year graduate student in biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University. He attended the South Big Data Hub/NCDS mHealth conference in May with support from the Hub.