The next wave of jobs in healthcare is coming from here
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Monitoring your heart from your phone (Credit: Alamy)

Most of us no longer need to walk into a bank to pay a bill or visit a shop to buy a new outfit –  it can all be done online. But we still travel to the doctor’s office—and wait (and wait) to be treated. For now.

A growing number of healthcare providers, software developers and entrepreneurs are focusing on mobile health, or mHealth, improving patient care through mobile devices. At its simplest this means enabling devices, such as body sensors, smart watches or specialised apps on smart phones, to gather information about ourselves in real-time, which can then be sent to a doctor for review.

The mHealth industry will be a $59 billion business by 2020

The field is poised for massive growth. According to Markets and Markets, a Pune, India-based market research firm, the mHealth industry will be a $59 billion business by 2020 and grow by a 33.4% compound annual growth rate between now and then. And with that growth will come a boom in jobs – software developers, academic researchers, engineers, big data scientists, tech-savvy doctors, on the ground mHealth workers.  

Reaching the unreachable

There has already been a sharp rise in the need for on-the-ground health workers,  particularly working in rural areas of Africa where doctors might only visit a few times a month. Click on the video above to see how mHealth apps and workers are changing the lives of rural patients who are visually impaired.

Algorithms need to be designed to make that data meaningful.

“We need people to build the technology, and people who can do something meaningful with the data that’s collected,” said Rick Bloomfield an assistant professor of paediatrics at Duke University in the US. He is also the university health system’s director of mobile technology strategy.

Bloomfield thinks countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing nations stand to benefit the most from the new technology as they are likely to rely more heavily on mobile apps for their health care needs in the future.  While there are large populations living too far away from a doctor or a hospital to get treatment, about 80% of all Africans have a mobile phone, according to the Pew Research Center.

Jump in jobs

The jobs in mHealth are likely to take many forms. For starters, doctors who can help design and conceive new apps or uses of mobile health will be in demand, said Richard Jefferson, the director of NHS England’s Code4Health, a program that analyses how digital tools can be used in a health care setting. 

Healthcare professionals don’t need to learn code, but if they have any technology-related experience or feel comfortable testing new software and devices, they may get ahead faster than their counterparts without that knowledge.

Demand for developers and engineers who can create both hardware and software for medical use will grow as well, he said. It helps if those professionals have experience in healthcare or can, at least, feel comfortable talking to doctors and hospital executives.

There will also be a need for data scientists – people who can parse and make sense of the copious amounts of patient information being sent to hospitals via these myriad devices, said Vigilante.

“All of that data, whether it be videos, text messages or numbers, needs to be analysed,” he said. “Algorithms need to be designed to make that data meaningful.”

In developing nations, people will be needed to bring the technology to those hard-to-reach areas and to educate patients on how to use apps. Academics who can study the impact of technology on healthcare, and business owners who see an opportunity to create and deploy new technology are also required.

Gangbuster growth

The advent of the smartphone is propelling mHealth. Now people with heart problems can use a watch to monitor their heart rate in real-time, while a diabetic can take a glucose reading using a phone and then immediately send that data to their doctor.

At the moment, mHealth is mostly being used to monitor high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and asthma, said Bloomfield, but in the future it may be able to not only track how someone is dealing with an illness, but it may predict when a medical event, like a heart attack, will occur. Bloomfield even thinks that people will, one day, swallow small chips that will give doctors a look inside their bodies without a patient making a trip to a hospital.

The medical profession is a big proponent of mHealth because it makes their job easier, said Bloomfield. For instance, doctors often ask patients to record their blood pressure at home. Most people, though, fail to track the results or they don’t track them properly. Many forget leave the data at home when they next visit for a check-up.  Now, with a smartphone connected blood pressure device, “it makes it much easier to track metrics for those patients”, said Bloomfield.

This frees up time for doctors to attend to more pressing needs  and saves the health care industry money, too, said Kevin Vigilante, a senior vice-president with Booz Allen Hamilton, a global management consulting firm.

“The healthier people are the less expensive they’re going to be,” he said. According to an Accenture report, mHealth devices will save the U.S. health care sector $100 billion over the next four years.

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