Has mHealth reached a tipping point?


COVID-19 showed the value of digital health technologies – now, financing new care pathways using such technology enables mHealth apps to go mainstream

The coronavirus crisis presented healthcare with an unprecedented challenge. Health systems and staff were under immense pressure, procedures were postponed, and vulnerable patients could not risk traveling to clinics for appointments.

Everything had changed except the needs of patients. People with chronic and psychological illnesses still needed care. In fact, the additional stress associated with long periods of isolation only added to their burden.

Digital health technologies and, in particular, mHealth applications, played a vital role in providing solutions. For example, using smartphones and tablets, digital tools helped to keep patients out of hospitals while maintaining contact with healthcare professionals.

For someone who has worked in this field for several years and has watched the slow pace at which digital innovation is embraced by health systems, it was encouraging to see a change in attitude. High quality applications enabling telemonitoring, tele-diagnosis and digital therapy were suddenly in demand from patients and healthcare professionals – their value finally realised.

Now the question is what role telemedicine will play in the post-COVID world. Will CE certified health apps be a permanent fixture in European healthcare or was their use a temporary convenience in a time of crisis?

I see reasons to expect the shift to be permanent. For a start, while the pandemic has been a catalyst that accelerated the uptake of mHealth, it didn’t come entirely out of the blue. In Belgium, we have been building towards greater adoption and awareness of digital tools for several years. We have now – after 5 years – finally reached a key moment on a policy level by launching a reimbursement framework for mHealth which will offer a pathway to reimbursement for quality apps.

Let me take you back to 2015 when mHealth appeared for the first time in the Belgian e-health roadmap After 24 subsidized pilot projects, the evaluation revealed the need of a validation model which became a reality with mHealthBelgium. There are more than 300,000 health, lifestyle and wellness products in the two big app stores.

How can patients or health care professionals navigate their way to high-quality apps? Very few are CE-marked as medical devices. That’s exactly what the mHealthBelgium portal, a joint initiative by industry and government and launched early 2019, is doing: listing approved apps on different levels. It now features more than 20 apps.

At the heart of this model is a three-tier pyramid. Level 1 apps are CE marked, Level 2 apps meet ICT criteria on safe connectivity and interoperability, and Level 3 apps are integrated and financed in new care paths. After launching level 2 at the end of May, I am pleased to say that now – as of mid-October – we kick off level 3.

For industry, healthcare professionals and patients, this is what we have waited for – a platform were reliable apps can be found, coupled with a pathway to reimbursement for top apps. It will promote quality and serve as a magnet for innovation in digital health.

I see this as a landmark moment for mHealth in Belgium and beyond. As early movers in this space, we will continue to work with other countries and regions to share our experience of building a system that nurtures digital health. Together we will write a new chapter in Europe’s mHealth story.

Steven Vandeput, PhD

Steven Vandeput holds a master degree in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, both at KU Leuven. After his research activities, he held several positions within the university, ranging from project manager of multidisciplinary R&D projects towards research manager and innovation manager being responsible for all industry interactions and tech transfer activities related to biomedical data analytics.

Steven is passionated about health, digital technologies and innovation and is also holder of a MBA on Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management. Since January 2019 he joined beMedTech, the sector federation that represent the industry of medical technologies in Belgium, where he is Advisor for Extramuros and Digital Health. In that function, he also coordinates the mHealthBelgium portal.