Can our phones work medical miracles too? To be sure, no smart phone, for now anyway, can detect cancerous moles, boost vision, or treat acne, some of the bogus claims already shot down by health regulators. But there are thousands more apps that claim health-boosting properties, and it’s time to take a closer look.
This much-touted tech trend may not be all that it’s made out to be, yet. Wise skeptics, please advance to the head of the class.
For the record, health apps can be useful
Some of the best health advice doesn’t need a smart phone. Abundant research says that you can optimize your well-being if you: eat healthy, exercise regularly, sleep well, control life’s stresses, and don’t smoke or drink alcohol to excess. Where apps and other elements of mobile health are proving most popular and productive is in helping us stay on that simple but narrow pathway.
The American Heart Association and other health care leaders say that apps play a positive role in increasing our engagement with health metrics and concerns. With smart phones’ capacity to connect to the Internet and the cloud, apps and devices can tie us in to valid, valuable health information and steer us away from the clickbait bunk that proliferates on the Web. Apps also make it fun to track our heart rate, calorie intake, hours of sleep, and number of steps per day.
This data could be collected before, with pencil, paper, and pedometer, and reference lists of the calories in common foods. But apps make it fast and easy. They’re booming, with some market research experts estimating there are now more than 100,000 health- or medical-related apps in existence, and the size of the market burgeoning to $26 billion by next year. Apps focused on exercise and weight control, the heart association found, are the two most popular health-related types; next are apps to help monitor and control diabetes and those aimed at tracking and reducing smoking, cholesterol, or high blood pressure.
There are thousands of app developers, most of whom see spare return on their investment, market research experts say. But with so many enthusiasts pushing apps and their potential, remember this: Beware the hype.
Digital diagnoses? Professionals still matter
Federal regulators are watching, warily, the mHealth boom. A challenge for both overseers and pioneers lies in how and where rapid technological advances will take health- and medical-related apps. The future’s not easy to see. But some trends are developing.
In technical terms, apps now are relatively light weight and uncomplicated. But if they increase their complexity and use, federal officials say they may turn into medical devices, subject to requires for rigorous testing, effectiveness and safety. If apps get smarter and go beyond recording information to measuring, analyzing, assessing, and recommending (diagnosing) health or medical conditions that, too, would set off alarms for regulators and caregivers.
Silicon Valley, already a major talent magnet, has started to pull in even more medical expertise as tech titans try to translate “blue sky” ideas linking smart devices, wearables, apps, the Internet, Wi-Fi, Big Data, and the cloud into concrete, lucrative health and mHealth material─all within the constraints of federal oversight, the medical establishment, and insurers.
Guard your health data by protecting apps, devices
You wouldn’t jump on the subway and scatter your medical records around. You wouldn’t get up from lunch in the office cafeteria and leave your lab test results on the table. So why aren’t you protecting your smart devices and the health apps on them?
Smart devices are pricey, a couple of hundred dollars a pop, and, it’s all too common for users to lose or have them stolen. Be sure your smart phone is password protected; this is just the first level of common sense security. Make sure you have installed apps that help you geo-locate a lost device, and that you know how to wipe out, remotely, its contents.
Be careful where you work, especially when on the road. Public Wi-Fi may expose confidential information, including passwords and data you access (including financial or health information pulled from online sites or shared via apps).
What legal limits will there be on what companies will do with your health data from apps? Is it anonymized to protect you, as would be required in formal, health care situations? To what extent can a company capitalize on or exploit your health information for gain? How much can the information be shared, with whom and under what circumstances?
Some of these legal issues, of course, get dealt with — and too quickly dismissed — in Terms of Service agreements that many online services and apps flash at you at the beginning. Too many people ignore these at their legal peril; one study found that college kids skimmed the long, complex notices so fast that they didn’t notice they were giving away their first-borns for a half century after signing a hypothetical agreement. A bevy of creative users of Google’s “free” YouTube service are discovering too late that they have given away valuable rights to their music, performances, photos, videos, art, and other material by too quickly approving a “ToS” agreement, then publicly posting material. Do you want to be in a similarly unhappy position with your vital, private health or medical data?
MDs, nurses tap apps, too
If you see a nurse or doctor at your hospital with cell phone in hand, don’t assume they’re lollygagging with personal business. Caregivers also have been swept up in the trends of smart phones and apps for serious clinical use.
Research finds that significant numbers of them tap apps for: information and time management; health record maintenance and access; communications and consulting; reference and information gathering; patient management and monitoring; clinical decision-making; and medical education and training. They, like other consumers, relish how smart devices and apps let them quickly and conveniently check key reference works or to do complex calculations, say, when medications must be administered based on a patient’s age, gender, weight, height, and other clinical factors.
Doctors and nurses both like apps that allow them to communicate better and more efficiently with patients. But these must be used with care, health care experts warn, to ensure that strict patient privacy rules do not get breached.