“You shouldn’t have to know how many bars of signal there are, you turn on the phone and there’s a dial tone.”

This is what Marty Cooper, father of the mobile phone, told me as he handed me a jitterbug phone. I opened up the clamshell, and sure enough, there was a dial tone.

So who decided that all of us need to assess the strength of the cell phone signal, dial a person’s number, and then find out whether there will be a connection or not? Lots of analogies to health care.

I got to meet Marty and Arlene Harris, the CEO and Co-Founder of Jitterbug, yesterday, as we toured them through The Sidney Garfield Health Care Innovation Center, in Oakland, CA. This is probably my fourth time at the Center – I have grown to enjoy the inspiration that goes beyond what is housed inside, because it is a great environment to be in, just to think about what’s possible.

I met Arlene about a month ago when she spoke at the mHealthInitiative June Seminar, in Washington, DC, and learned more about Arlene and Marty’s experience yesterday, in the company of experts from Kaiser Permanente, including leaders of its Internet Services Group, and physician leaders, including John Mattison, MD, from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Informatics group.

They originally set out to create a mobile phone service for people who would not likely use much airtime, and would also not expect to pay a lot per month, around $10, maybe. When they couldn’t find a carrier that would provide this service, they created their own. Both Arlene and Marty have long roots in telecommunications. Arlene told us that the first mobile health application they developed provided pagers to families who were waiting for organs on transplant lists. The pagers freed them from sitting by their home phones, waiting for a call to arrive.

During our tour we saw the most high-tech innovations, including mobile computing devices that hospital staff can use to read barcodes on medications, take photos of wounds, and document in the electronic medical record. We also saw practical innovations, including a discharge board that visibly shows patients and families which milestones have been reached on their way home.

I’ll say for all of us, the day was a reminder that everyone is necessary – from those who create the breakthrough idea, to those who provide service to people who want and need it. As I have said on this blog before, I am interested in mHealth and believe leading edge health care organizations have the ability to leverage it to deliver care affordably as well as equitably, to the large proportion of our population that is now far more mobile than a web browser on a desktop.

With great thanks to Marty and Arlene for spending time to inspire our innovators about the promise of mobility, and of course to The Sidney Garfield Health Care Innovation Center for the mind expanding environment.

Ted Eytan, MD