02/11/2014 06:58 pm ET Updated May 26, 2015

Leveraging Mobile Technology for Improved Public Health: Empowering Communities With Increased Access and Connectivity

According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of Americans own cell phones, 56 percent of which are smartphones. As a physician and president of the Aetna Foundation, I have witnessed this rapid increase in technology usage firsthand. I've been encouraged by both patients and their family members using mobile technology to track their health behaviors. In my experience, it was as simple as a young girl from Baltimore looking up her grandmother's heart condition on her iPhone and downloading an evidence-based fitness application to track their daily walks. When they returned to my office, the young girl had a new wealth of knowledge and her grandmother was incorporating exercise into her daily life. For my patients and their caregivers, like all of us, ease of use and access can make all the difference.

Bridging the Health Divide
Most of us are aware that racial and ethnic minorities experience disparities in health and health care services. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that heart disease and diabetes are two of the top 10 leading causes of death for African Americans. And, even though African American adults are 4 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, they are 10 percent less likely than their non-Hispanic white counterparts to have their blood pressure under control. Additionally, the American Heart Association reports that Hispanics who have experienced a stroke exhibit blood pressure that is six percent higher than non-Hispanic whites. In my view, there is a clear need for innovative solutions that can empower these underserved populations with information and tools that allow them to take charge of their own health.

However, promising research shows that African Americans and Hispanics use their mobile devices for non-voice functions to a greater extent than white mobile phone users, indicating a level of comfort with the technology. In fact, cell phone owners who are Latino, African American or between the ages of 18 and 49 are more likely than other groups to gather health information from their phones. This increase in mobile device usage offers enormous potential to transform the way that we manage our health and wellness and enables minority communities to regularly monitor behaviors that may be impacting their health. I'm encouraged that vulnerable and underserved populations can gain significant health and wellness benefits from these advances.

Recognizing Innovation Happening Today
Health care organizations, regional hospitals and grassroots intervention programs across the country are already experimenting with ways to leverage mobile technology to impact public health. This work is reaching people within the context of their daily lives -- in their schools, among their church communities and in their neighborhoods -- to make a real-world difference. At the Aetna Foundation, we are supporting these efforts with more than $1.2 million in grants to 23 local organizations across 13 states that are impacting health and wellness in their communities through the innovative use of technology.

One organization we are supporting in Cleveland, Ohio, the Institute for eHealth Equity, is reaching African American women ages 19 to 55 through a two-way text faith-based messaging campaign with local health ministers. By meeting these women where they are, three different communities will kick-start healthier lifestyles, increase access and improve overall health and wellness with actionable exercise, wellness, disease prevention and lifestyle change-related messaging tailored to both their culture and individual needs.

To further our commitment, over the next three years, the Aetna Foundation will provide a total of $4 million to programs like these as a part of our larger Digital Health Initiative.

What You Can Do Today

By utilizing the power of mobile technology, you can take charge of your own health.

1. Make Sure Your Technology Fits You: Find the type of technology and form of communication that works best for you. Solutions range from email with a physician to a fitness app that tracks your workouts. Ensuring your technology meets your personal needs will help increase your overall usage and create positive outcomes.

2. Does Your Technology Make the Grade? Look for Evidence-based Options: Make sure the application you are using is evidence-based -- this means the technology combines a medical professional's expertise with scientific evidence and the perspective of the individuals using it to improve their health. Ensuring that technology follows medical guidelines will help to deliver better outcomes.

3. Use the Buddy System: Look for a friend or family member that can help keep you on track for making healthy lifestyle choices. Having someone to support you and go through the process will keep you motivated over time.

4. Know Your Family Health History: Have a candid conversation with family members about their health. Knowing the health issues that run in your family can help you identify what may be most important to track in your own health.

5. Ask for Help: Talk to your physician about the types of technology and applications they recommend using to help you meet your health goals.

To learn more about ways you can benefit from digital health innovations, and find more tips on how to use technology to improve health and wellness, visit: