Smartphones can help fight AIDS

Coming in third may mean a bronze medal at the Olympics, but in Florida, data shows that three is not a cause for celebration. The Sunshine State ranks third in the nation for the cumulative number of AIDS cases, and it’s the third worst state for physician shortages.

An article looking at the HIV/AIDS crisis in America went so far as to say that Florida and other Southern states have cumulatively “emerged as ground zero.” This is why prevention is so critical.

June 27 marked the 20th annual National HIV Testing Day — a day that we put a lot of energy into because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six people with HIV don’t know they have it. Treatment is also critical, and options are coming from what many initially seem like an unlikely place: mobile broadband-enabled devices like smartphones.

Consider this, and you’ll see why it’s a natural convergence: The U.S. healthcare system already amounts to about 17 percent of GDP, and that number is expected to rise as demand for healthcare increases. As a society we are becoming increasingly reliant on mobile devices. In a recent study from Bank of America, nearly half of the respondents said they couldn’t live without their smartphones, and more than 90 percent said they are “very important.”

Having information and healthcare accessible in the palm of a hand is making a difference in the HIV/AIDS community. For example, telemedicine enables remote face-to-face conversations between doctors and patients for treatment, nutritional guidance and care management.

The advent of mobile apps is also making a difference. For healthcare alone, estimates suggest that the number of people using mobile medical apps will reach 500 million by next year. Apps focused on HIV/AIDS provide a range of features that includes medical information, reminders about appointments and medication, data tracking and pharmacy locations.

The AIDS Institute is leading an evaluation study to assess the ability of an app to enhance patient adherence and better manage their disease.

Telemedicine and apps are poised to play a bigger role in our healthcare system — to the benefit of the HIV/AIDS community. However, to fully realize this potential, our representatives in the nation’s capital must act promptly to promote future innovation in this space, which stands to be hindered by outdated regulations.

The laws that govern this space are largely rooted in Depression-era monopoly phone regulations, last been updated in 1996 — well before mobile apps even existed. To say that things have changed since 1996 — let alone 1934, when the Communications Act was initially enacted — would be an understatement. For one, the Internet was in its infancy in 1996. Today, it’s a significant economic driver that has led to the creation of new industries and is a catalyst for opportunity where opportunity previously didn’t exist or seem attainable.

What we need is a modernized Communications Act that not only reflects the digital world we live in today but also gives it room to evolve.

Fortunately, recognition that a modernized Communications Act is needed is growing on Capitol Hill. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is leading the effort, and Sen. John Thune, a leader on the Senate Commerce Committee, recently voiced his support for change. Our own Sen. Bill Nelson, who is also a leader on the committee that would oversee an update to the communications law, should be an outspoken supporter of this effort.

The bottom line is that HIV/AIDS remains a significant healthcare issue and one that the convergence of healthcare and broadband is helping us fight. Mobile applications and the web have tremendous potential to further support and rapidly advance our work in preventing and in significantly improving treatment, treatment adherence and disease management.

Congress can and should take action to remove barriers to further developments in this area. It can begin by acting swiftly to modernize the Communications Act so we can spur new innovations in life-enhancing healthcare technologies.

Michael Ruppal is executive director of The AIDS Institute.