We've all heard about the trend toward mobile technology in health care, but how fast is it really catching on? Short answer: faster than you might have thought.
Use of mobile health apps has doubled in the past two years, rising from 16 percent in 2014 to 33 percent in 2016, according to a survey by Accenture.
But what do we know about the effectiveness, safety, and accessibility of these apps? The technology promises to provide great benefits to both patients and providers, but it also comes with some potential pitfalls.
Several recent studies show that apps have the potential to improve health and quality of life for patients. A review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that mobile apps and Web-based programs can be effective tools for behavior modification and addressing lifestyle choices such as diet and smoking -- especially if combined with interaction from health care providers. One of the most valuable aspects of the technology was its ability to provide real-time feedback to patients between office visits, the researchers said.
Meanwhile, patients seem open to the idea of physician-recommended mobile health apps. Accenture found that three-quarters of patients who were asked by physicians to wear technology to track fitness and lifestyle habits or vital signs actually followed their doctor's recommendations, and 90 percent said they're willing to share data from health apps or wearable technology with their provider -- in fact, 40 percent had already done so.
Despite the potential, there are barriers to more widespread use of mobile health technology. Not all Americans have the same level of health literacy, and some may struggle to understand the information that health-related apps provide them.
Using the technology inconsistently or improperly might not produce ideal results. In addition, most mobile health apps aren't subject to HIPAA regulations, and patients may not realize who they're sharing their health data with when using these platforms.
Another barrier could be the lack of certification programs or other independent verification of the quality of information and functionality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released updated guidance on general wellness apps in July 2016 but has so far declined to get involved in policing apps for many of the most popular uses, such as weight management or exercise (including heart-rate monitoring).
In August 2016, Apple released more review guidelines for apps sold in the App Store, calling out health and medical apps specifically for additional scrutiny and even rejection if they have the potential to provide inaccurate information, be used for diagnostic purposes, or cause harm to patients.
Prescribing the Right App
With scant regulation and more than 165,000 health apps available, how can physicians determine which apps to recommend to patients? Here are a few tips to help guide you.
- Read independent reviews. The Journal of Medical Internet Research publishes peer-reviewed studies of mobile apps and other digital tools. At iMedicalApps.com, you can find online reviews of mobile health apps from other physicians.
- Look for endorsements from major organizations. The American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and the National Cancer Institute have all developed mobile health apps based on their own expertise, and many large health systems have also developed apps for their physicians and patients.
- Find a few go-to apps. Most physicians have a certain set of medications that they recommend to their patients for certain conditions based on experience or research. Take a similar approach to apps, identifying platforms to recommend for your most common patient requests, such as weight management, smoking cessation, or increasing exercise.
- Try out iPrescribeApps.com. This new service, free to physicians in its launch phase, reviews and rates health apps for different conditions and concerns, using evidence-based criteria to help physicians identify quality mobile health apps for patients.
As with any new development in the practice of health care, physicians need to form their own conclusions about which apps will help their patients live healthier lives. What's clear, however, is that health apps deserve consideration for a place in any doctor's toolkit.