Paging Dr. Smartphone: How Medical Apps are Revolutionizing Health Care

Bobby Miller

Smartphones can let us take pictures, record videos, browse the Internet, play games and so much more thanks to the endless ocean of apps that grows deeper and broader every day. Thanks to everything smartphones can do, some people feel like they can’t live without them. Someday, that could literally be the case, thanks to the increasing popularity of medical apps.

Nvate fitness apps health care health care apps Hello Doctor app Lose It medical apps RunKeeper

The use of medical apps is on the rise.
Credit: freedigitalphotos.net Ambro

In 2013, 95 million Americans used their smartphones “to access health care information or applications,” according to Entrepreneur.com. The website goes on to note that health care apps on mobile platforms constituted a $6.3 billion market in 2013, and this number could shoot up to $20.7 billion by 2018. The Pew Research Center found that the market is especially large among individuals with chronic health conditions. These people are the most likely to use mobile devices to research possible treatments for their condition and to monitor their health closely.

Currently, the most popular health care apps tend to focus on allowing the user to track various health statistics. For instance, the app RunKeeper monitors a person’s running habits in order to help them with their fitness goals. Another app called Lose It allows the user to monitor their weight and calorie intake. Download RunKeeper and Lose It from the apps’ websites.

Other applications, though, take a less DIY-approach to health by focusing on the relationship between patients and medical experts. In particular, the Hello Doctor app allows the user to take pictures of medical records. On these photos, patients can jot down notes and questions to help them make doctor visits focused and productive. The app also features “smart listing” features to make organizing everything quick and easy. The beta version is currently free for download on iPhones and iPads. Visit the app’s website to download, https://hello.do/

Health care apps are only in their infancy, however. According to experts such as Dr. Joseph Kvedar, apps could eventually revolutionize how patients interact with doctors—or even allow patients to treat themselves. As Mashable.com reported, Kvedar is “the founder and director of the Center for Connected Health, which focuses on providing health care outside of the traditional hospital or doctor’s office setting.” He is particularly interested in how people use the Internet, smartphones and other technology for medical purposes.

In Kvedar’s eyes, it’s about time we revolutionized health care. As he told Healthcare-Informatics.com, medical treatment hasn’t changed much since the ancient days of Hippocrates, one of the most influential physicians in history. Most of us see a doctor for about half an hour a year for a quick checkup and leave, visiting more often only if we’re sick.

Nvate fitness apps health care health care apps Hello Doctor app Lose It medical apps RunKeeper

Dr. Sharon Moalem’s app could simplify genetic facial analysis to detect various conditions early.
Credit: BusinessInsider.com

But technology is already changing how this works. For example, many of us can email our doctors with little concerns, such as when exactly we should take a medication, rather than drive to their office and sit in a waiting room only to get a short answer.

Kvedar believes mobile applications could improve health care in ways more important than convenience, however. A smartphone follows a patient around almost everywhere, whereas a primary care doctor can only check on a patient for a few minutes a year. Just imagine, for example, if mobile technology allowing users to measure their blood pressure every day became widespread. This would help doctors receive a more holistic picture of a patient’s health than one checkup a year ever could. After all, just because your blood pressure happens to be normal during a checkup doesn’t guarantee it’s usually at a healthy level.

Aside from helping us keep track of different health indicators, smartphones could even suggest a diagnosis based on the data they collect. Dr. Sharon Moalem, an author, geneticist and developer, is currently making a smartphone app that could help detect rare disorders that most doctors overlook. As he told Business Insider, “40 million Americans are thought to be affected by a rare disorder, and it can take an average of 7 years to get to a diagnosis, with two or three misdiagnoses along the way.” He believes this is in part because, “through no fault of their own, many physicians just lack the training when it comes to diagnosing genetic conditions.”

Clever use of technology, though, could at least help us diagnosis rare disorders—just by using our smartphones or tablets. As Moalem explained, our faces are like fingerprints, unique to every person. And since our faces are determined by our genes, certain facial traits give us clues as to what our genes are like. So, Moalem’s team is making an app that uses facial recognition technology to help doctors diagnose genetic conditions or spot genetic predispositions toward various diseases.

This app’s development has only just begun, so we have yet to see if Moalem and his colleagues will be successful. But what’s certain is that health care app development is booming right now. This is especially apparent in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s recent Grand Hackfest. MIT’s event brought together hundreds of people to work together “for one weekend on possible solutions to problems involving diabetes, rare diseases, global health and information technology used at hospitals,” as The Wall Street Journal explained. This scientific marathon served as the starting point for many new research teams; a number of them have pursued their ideas further since the event took place. Moalem and his colleagues actually began their facial recognition app at this gathering.

The rise of medical app development is good news even for people living in parts of the world where smartphones and similar technology are hard to come by. Certain apps could help doctors treat patients in these underprivileged areas. For example, Dr. George Zouridakis of the University of Houston is developing an app called the DermoScreen, which allows the user to take a picture of an odd-looking mole and find out whether or not it’s cancerous—in just a few seconds. As TakePart.com explained, the app accurately detects skin cancer 85 percent of the time, which is actually on par with trained dermatologists.

Nvate fitness apps health care health care apps Hello Doctor app Lose It medical apps RunKeeper

The DermoScreen’s special attachment allows it to detect melanoma accurately.
Credit: UH.edu

However, it requires a $500 attachment for the iPhone to magnify and illuminate the mole in question. This might make the app unnecessary for those of us who could simply visit a dermatologist, but it could help doctors working in developing nations where such specialists are more difficult for patients to find. DermoScreen has shown enough promise that the National Institute of Health has provided over $400,000 in grants to test whether or not it could detect Buruli ulcer, a skin disease typically found in Africa.

Overall, it will be interesting to see how the health care app market develops in coming years. With Apple’s iOS 8 running a native Health app and using a cloud platform called HealthKit, users will be able to see the collected data of all their medical apps stored in one convenient place. Since this program will be in the hands of millions of Apple fans, it could provide some form of standardization, making health tracking on smartphones and tablets even more common.

As Kvedar told the New York Times, there could even come a day when health care apps become sophisticated enough “to use algorithms and large databases to diagnose conditions and recommend treatment” without a doctor overseeing the process. However, such a step would produce all sorts of liabilities. It’s much safer for the app developer and the patient to have the app collect data and then have a doctor make the final call.

It’s also important for patients to make sure they don’t clog up their smartphones with snake oil. As Mashable.com reported, there are some tell-tale signs that a medical app can’t live up to its promises. For instance, any app that claims to use your smartphone’s light for skin treatment is nothing but baloney, and many doctors are wary of apps that promise to help diabetics calculate their insulin doses. Plus, if an app claims it can detect melanoma without the help of a special attachment, such as the one used by DermoScreen, then it should be avoided. In fact, any app that promises to not only track a disease but also treat it “should raise red flags upfront,” according to Dr. Satish Misra. Misra is the co-founder of iMedicalApps.com, a website where physicians provide their own opinions on mobile health care apps.

In years to come, we’ll see how medical apps become more advanced and also see how their regulation policies evolve. In the meantime, the Google Play app store and iTunes store have sections devoted entirely to health and fitness apps, giving interested users many different options to explore.

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