How telehealth services like remote patient monitoring can help meet patient demand for mHealth

A combination of the words “mobile health,” mHealth has become a common term among patients as well as healthcare payers and providers. But with the rapid rise of mobile technology and telehealth services, the precise meaning of mHealth can be a little tough to pin down. With that in mind, here’s an up-to-date look at the difference between mHealth and telehealth, why it matters, and where remote patient monitoring (RPM) fits in.

What Is mHealth?

So, what is mHealth, exactly? Coined in 2006, mHealth is a term used to describe the “emerging mobile communications and network technologies for healthcare systems,” according to an essay published that year. So, the term literally means mobile healthcare. However, it’s not uncommon to see it used to describe other types of electronic care — an enormous category that ranges from consumer tech like Fitbit wearables or Apple Health to a full remote patient monitoring platform.

Some confusion is understandable. After all, in 2007, just one year after the term mHealth was coined, Apple rolled out the iPhone. As the first smartphone on the market, the iPhone quickly transformed not just American society but day-to-day life around the world. And in 2021, less than 15 years later, as many as 85% of all Americans would own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center, including more than 60% of adults 65 or older.

Over that same period of time, the concept of telehealth also took off in a big way. Coined in the 1970s, telehealth or telemedicine (as it’s also called), was originally meant to describe any exchange of medical data using electronic or wire transmission. As such, some trace the idea of telemedicine to the invention of the electrocardiograph in the early 1900s, even if the word itself wasn’t in use at that time.

Even so, telehealth wasn’t widely used until the introduction of the smartphone — and the development of more advanced RPM technology — enabled a more interactive type of healthcare. And even though the U.S. government had been actively promoting the use of remote care in rural parts of the country for years, it wasn’t until Covid-19 and the need for at-home care that it really surged — to about 69% of all doctor-patient visits at the peak of the pandemic, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Smartphones helped usher in this change in a number of ways. They not only provided the hardware, but they also helped Americans of all ages feel more comfortable with accessing health information electronically. They had gone from being reluctant to mix technology with healthcare in the 1990s to insisting on it by 2020.

mHealth: The evolution of a term

Given these changes in technology and public perception, some authorities have worked to better define just what mHealth is, and how it fits into the structure of care delivery.

“There are various definitions of mHealth,” write the authors of an article published in Healthcare Informatics Research. “For example, mHealth has been defined as ‘mobile computing, medical sensor, and communication technologies for healthcare.’ The Global Observatory for eHealth of the WHO defines mHealth as ‘medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices, such as mobile phones, patient monitoring devices, personal digital assistants, and other wireless devices.’

“Alternatively, mHealth may mean the use of mobile devices to monitor or detect biological changes in the human body, while device management entities, such as hospitals, clinics, or service providers, collect data and use them for healthcare and health status improvement.”

Since some of those definitions run pretty close to what we think of as telehealth or telemedicine, it’s worth our time to dive a little deeper into the differences between these two important terms. 

What’s the difference between mHealth and telehealth?

In the early days of technology enabling personal, at-home care, what’s now known as telehealth or telemedicine was also frequently referred to as mHealth, and vice versa. But as technology has become more advanced, and privacy laws have developed to protect personal health information (PHI), a clear difference has emerged between these terms.

As the use of smartphones took hold, people got used to monitoring their health on their mobile devices. Some pioneers of this movement include producers of devices and apps such as Fitbit, Garmin (an early smartwatch), MyFitnessPal, Strava (a social-based exercise network), and Runkeeper. Primarily focused on personal fitness, these offerings became extremely popular among young and middle-aged consumers.

Yet as helpful as these devices and apps could be for some individuals, mHealth was generally for personal use, not sharing and managing PHI — and generally not for seniors. The emergence of platforms like RPM that could seamlessly monitor patient data, then transfer it to clinicians, served a different purpose entirely. As opposed to a single consumer touchpoint, RPM was a concept that used a range of devices, software and protocols to deliver remote patient care while requiring little to no technological ability from patients.

So, while mHealth refers to devices that health-minded individuals like consumers or employees use to keep track of their own health, telehealth is an actual clinical methodology that applies accepted models like RPM and chronic care management (CCM) to actively manage the health of patients with diagnosed health conditions. In the case of RPM and CCM, this is often for serious, life-threatening conditions, as opposed to mHealth’s focus on personal fitness and wellbeing.

In other words, telehealth is used to describe devices that collect and transmit PHI, while mHealth is used to describe devices that do not. Patients can generally purchase mHealth devices at retail stores without a prescription (such as a standard blood pressure monitor). Telehealth, on the other hand, is used to describe devices that used in clinical care management, and ordered through a DME/HME supplier (such as a remote blood pressure monitor).

Can healthcare providers use RPM to offer mHealth services to patients?

According to modern terminology, then, remote patient monitoring is a telehealth application, rather than a type of mHealth. By collecting and transferring critical data from the patient’s bed to the clinician’s EHR system, RPM enables at-home care for patients across the country — and has likely saved payers and providers untold expenses by reducing readmissions and boosting patient engagement.

However, as we’ve seen with the definitions above, there is some overlap between telehealth and mHealth. As seen in the Healthcare Informatics Research article, the description of mHealth as “mobile devices to monitor or detect biological changes in the human body” to provide actionable info for care providers could also be applied to telehealth, and could also describe RPM devices like those offered by CareSimple.

> Looking for more context? Get a primer on RPM devices here

RPM devices are medical devices designed to enable remote patient monitoring, including weight scales, oximeters, glucometers, BP monitors and more. In addition to their specific purpose of measuring patient data, these devices are also designed to integrate electronically with a care provider’s EHR system to provide clinicians with better, timelier information to assist their decision making.

Today, these RPM devices are most commonly used in the context of chronic care management. As such, care delivered with these devices is often part of a strictly defined care regimen, such as:

However, like mHealth devices, some of these RPM devices can also encourage patients to take a greater stake in their own personal health — a key benefit for chronic care patients, where an overriding goal is the prevention of readmission or the development of comorbidities.

> Related: How one innovative care professional uses RTM to engage patients and boost outcomes

Get help leveraging mHealth, telehealth and RPM for your patients

So, while mHealth is a term that’s oriented more to the consumer or employee, there is overlap with telehealth. And some providers are using that connection to better engage patients and drive the kind of long-term outcomes that are essential to meeting patient care goals.

It’s important to remember, though, that many patients and even clinicians may not know the difference between mHealth and telehealth. For that reason, it may be best for organizations to adopt an expansive attitude towards these terms, while still focusing on using each to its full potential.

If your organization is interested in leveraging telehealth to expand your capacity for at-home patient care, we can help you find a solution that works best for your specific needs. Contact a CareSimple specialist or schedule a demo today to learn more.

Looking for additional information or guidance on RPM reimbursement?

Get a handy, printable map of current CPT® codes for RPM, RTM, CCM and more with the CareSimple Reimbursement Tree.