There is an App for That

Today it seems that there is an app for just about everything. Take for instance this post, I am writing it on Blogsy (see badge at the bottom of this post), an app on my iPad. As demonstrated at the last Apple announcement, the company Anki has developed an app for an artificial intelligence robotic car.

Now imagine a world where biosensors continuously monitor your vital signs and metabolic profile, and analyze them for anomalies. Medical data is transmitted wirelessly to your doctor, who writes a custom prescription based on your personal genetic information, emails it to your pharmacy who then delivers it by FedEx. This is a dream that is fueling a small revolution in health mobile apps.

Burrill“Most of the innovation in the world today is going to be disrupting how we deliver health care, not just…what we do about inventing health care,” G. Steven Burrill, founder and CEO of Burrill & Company. “There are 7 billion people in the world today and 6 billion of them have cell phones.” He argued that smartphone technology has the potential to empower patients, cut costs, and revolutionize the way medicine is practiced in the digital age.

Which is one reason why many doctors are suggesting, but not prescribing apps. Doctors aren’t sure which of the roughly 40,000 available apps do what they claim to do. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration divides health apps into two categories: those that help with healthy lifestyles and those that turn your phone into a medical device to, say, record blood pressure or an EKG, and then send those readings to a doctor.

The market for mobile medical apps, ranging from sleep monitors for consumers to electrocardiogram viewers for doctors, is growing quickly, with as many as 500 million smartphone users worldwide expected to use healthcare apps by 2015, according to the consulting firm Research2Guidance.

“Consumers are utilizing these tools almost as quickly as they can be developed,” says Bakul Patel, a policy advisor in FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “The agency plans to work closely with application developers and manufactures so they can clearly navigate the best path to market for their technologies.”

The developers of countless tracking apps for dieters, joggers, and expectant moms need not worry, yet. Mobile apps used only to log, record, track, evaluate, or make decisions or suggestions related to developing or maintaining general health and wellness are not targeted by the draft guidance, nor are medical textbooks and other reference tombs.

To help cut health-care costs and enable consumers to live longer, healthier lives, companies have been trying to entice photopeople to health technologies by allowing them to share information through social media. But how can you tell which apps are reliable, and which ones are just marketing gimmicks? From my own personal use of apps, I enjoy the “Couch to 5K” iPhone App, but when I compare apps that track calories consumed and burned, their results vary greatly (and yes I use the one that shows I consume fewer and burn more calories, as opposed to the more conservative ones).

So how does your doctor decide to suggest particular apps? Sure, user reviews can be helpful. But the average user could very easily give a high rating to an app that’s not scientifically sound or that doesn’t follow medical guidelines. And as studies and reports continue to show, there’s a good likelihood of that happening, considering the number of apps that claim to treat medical problems but lack clinical evidence.

To give people a little more clarity on the apps that could best address their health needs, HealthTap is launching an app directory featuring doctor recommendations and written reviews. Called AppRx, the company said the directory enables patients to filter health and wellness apps with more granularity than what they’d find in app stores managed by Apple and Google. And, more importantly, it gives users a window into the apps that physicians actually find valuable.

“This whole notion of apps being integrated into the process of care is something we’re going to see more and more as these apps mature,” said HealthTap co-founder and CEO Ron Gutman. “One of the things we saw as a huge opportunity is the discoverability of apps, which came from our own frustration of going to the app store and drowning in a sea of apps.”

While the Food & Drug Administration is expected to hand down final guidance on the regulation of mobile health apps, the agency has said its oversight will only apply to a small subset of “mobile medical apps.” Services like HealthTap’s AppRx could help give more insight into apps not covered by the FDA.

This is a conversation, not an editorial. Did I forget something, get it wrong or do you agree? Please Comment, Like, Re-Tweet and and Share.


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