An app a day keeps the doctor away

C&I Issue 11, 2014

Healthcare is changing, with a growing recognition of the importance of mobile phone-supported medicine and health (mHealth). Most smartphones contain health information-related infrastructures and, particularly in the US, doctors can be consulted using an app. Apps are now delivering telehealth services; recording, transmitting and showing trends in vital signs; and delivering educational messages from staff monitoring the data.

However, most smartphone platforms enable only simple apps, such as fitness and medical dosage calculators. These have limited value because they don’t link up with anything else, explains Charles Lowe, president of telemedicine & e-health section at the Royal Society of Medicine, UK. ‘When apps begin to connect to, for instance, an electronic health record, or a health-monitoring service, they offer potentially much greater functionality by integrating different functions – for example, an app that links an implanted glucose detector with an insulin pump can perform the role of an artificial pancreas.’

Indeed, healthcare-focused smartphone interfaces, launched by Samsung and Apple, will be instrumental in propelling the global healthcare accessory hardware market to $3bn by 2019, according to a new report from Juniper Research (Digital health: remote monitoring, smart accessories & EHR cost savings 2014-2019).

Apple’s HealthKit allows all its health and fitness apps to work together, with the data kept in one place on a device. Apps can then be made that access that health data or share it automatically with a doctor. Similarly, Samsung’s Architecture for Multimodal Interactions allows devices and sensors from different sources to bring data to the cloud.

According to Juniper analyst Anthony Cox, greater availability of such platforms will encourage independent device manufacturers to launch a wider array of increasingly sophisticated mHealth products, such as blood pressure cuffs, oximeters, and sleep monitors, which can be linked with electronic health records.

With healthcare budgets under immense pressure, the medical profession is increasingly considering the role of mHealth in improving services, management and record keeping. Its rise, however, throws up some important issues. Some apps just don’t work or don’t work properly, and there is currently no agreed way of assessing their benefit. This makes it difficult to decide on the grounds of cost-benefit whether an app is better than a drug to deal with certain conditions, says Lowe. ‘As a result I am making a strong case, now supported by NHS England, Public Health England, the Royal College of Physicians and many others, that NICE should perform the same role for medical apps as it does for drugs.’

Security of patient information is another major issue. A recent study showed that a third of health apps in the US do not have a security policy, and many sell information to third parties for marketing purposes, according to Lowe, who points out that in Europe the Data Protection Directive already requires a higher standard than many providers follow.

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