Upgrading the Healthcare System, One App at a Time

by Anupriya Nagarathnam on March 22, 2014

An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but the Apple Store is attracting attention from all types of healthcare providers—doctors included. The reason? Mobile medical apps: a new breed of iTunes applications designed to improve the quality of care that healthcare providers are able to give to their patients. Such apps can take a variety of forms, with the FDA stating that everything from an add-on to an existing medical device to a program that transforms mobile platforms, like cellphones or tablets, into a medical device can be classified as a mobile medical app (MMA). Though fitness, health, and well-being applications have been available on iTunes since the mid-2000s, the field of MMA development is fairly new. Furthermore, the widespread acceptance and clinical use of medical apps is an ongoing process.

Physician Daniel Kraft advocates for the use of innovative MMA technology at the 2011 TEDxMaastricht conference. (Source: www.ted.com)

Physician Daniel Kraft advocates for the use of innovative MMA technology at the 2011 TEDxMaastricht conference. (Source: www.ted.com)

As recently as 2011, physician Daniel Kraft’s TEDx talk on the occupational use of medical apps in which he passionately encouraged all health professionals to leverage “cross-disciplinary, exponentially-growing technologies” to positively impact the future of health and wellness was still considered a revolutionary viewpoint. At the time of the talk, less than 20 percent of U.S. medical records were electronic and the first FDA-approved MMA had been approved for clinical use only a month earlier. Fast forward to 2014, and more than 100 MMAs have been approved by the FDA. Even more shockingly, the FDA predicts that by next year 500 million smartphone users around the world will be using a healthcare application, with thousands of other individual healthcare providers, hospitals, and clinics using such healthcare apps through tablets and other portable mobile devices as well.

So what caused this exponential growth in the development and use of MMA in such a short period of time? Increased integration of technology in clinical health settings and more tech-savvy medical providers are just a few of the many potential reasons for this growth in MMA use, but two significant developments in the field of MMA technology standout among all the others. First, on September 25, 2013 the FDA issued the “Mobile Medical Applications Guidance for Industry and Food and Drug Administration Staff” to establish oversight of MMAs that could cause the greatest harm to patients if those apps did not work properly. This formal FDA oversight bestowed a legitimacy on MMAs that encouraged even the most traditional physicians and hospitals to consider MMAs as viable diagnostic and care management tools. Second, the more widespread acceptance of MMAs led to an explosive increase in the volume of apps created, thereby allowing programmers to generate apps that offer more specialized services. What follows is a sampling of some of the unique subcategories of MMAs that have proven useful to healthcare providers and patients at all stages in the delivery of care:

1.)    Medical Reference Apps

The sheer volume of medical knowledge that physicians must stay up-to-date with is mind-boggling, and the never ending field of medical research means that this knowledge is always being updated. However, several Mobile Medical Apps seek to make it easier for healthcare providers to readily access this information, by developing apps that synthesize medical tomes and research articles into an easier to digest format. Medscape— an app created by WebMD – offers healthcare professionals access to everything from drug and disease clinical references to a tool that can check drug interactions based on a patient’s prescriptions (imedicalapps.com).

2.)    Mobile Medical Readers

Estimates suggest that physicians would need more than the 24 hours available each day to stay up to date with every new article published in the thousands of peer-reviewed healthcare and medical journals available worldwide. Read by QxMD and Docphin is medical app that is marketed specifically as a mobile medical journal reader that helps health professionals using the app to quickly identify the most relevant new research in their field. Read allows physicians to create a personalized list of journals to which they subscribe, then the app uses an algorithm combining the user’s prior reading history and global trends in article readership to generate a list of articles (and ready-to-read PDFs) that seem most relevant to the research of that particular user (internetmedicine.com).

3.)    Disease-Specific Apps

Though there are innumerable identified medical conditions present throughout the world, certain medical conditions are significantly more prevalent than others. In the United States, for example, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Accordingly, several apps have been created to address this need. Notably Health Heart 2 is a free app that is targeted at users over the age of 50, and it allows users to track and save vitals like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood glucose levels to share with physicians and family members (aarp.org). Since diabetes is another significant problem for the U.S. population, apps like The Diabetes Tracker by MyNetDiary allow users to keep track of blood glucose levels, insulin, and even calorie consumption to better manage the many facets of life with diabetes (diabetes.ufl.edu).

There are still more categories of apps that specialize in fostering physician-patient mobile communications and allow patients to keep track of adherence to exercise and dietary recommendations. However, the most pressing current issue with the MMA industry is to address current deficiencies within the system. For example, the journal Modern Healthcare conducted a study of over 40,000 apps that claim to be related to health or medicine and found that “and fewer than 50 relate to condition management or provide tools and calculators for users to measure their vitals” (Conn). Thus, even though significant progress has been made towards integrating easily accessible MMAs for the regular diagnosis, treatment, and continued care of patients, the future of MMA use necessitates the development of more specialized tools that address each of these three main areas of healthcare from the viewpoint of both the patient and the provider.

Sources:

https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kraft_medicine_s_future (Daniel Kraft)

http://mobihealthnews.com/27645/analysis-103-fda-regulated-mobile-medical-apps/ (Brian Dolan)

http://www.fda.gov/medicaldevices/productsandmedicalprocedures/connectedhealth/mobilemedicalapplications/default.htm

http://internetmedicine.com/2013/06/28/the-20-best-free-iphone-medical-apps-for-healthcare-professionals/

http://www.imedicalapps.com/2010/12/bes-free-iphone-medical-apps-doctors-health-care-professionals/

http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20131214/MAGAZINE/312149983 (Joseph Conn)

http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-01-2013/heart-health-mobile-apps.html

http://diabetes.ufl.edu/my-diabetes/diabetes-resources/diabetes-apps/


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