The Pros and Cons of Medical Apps

Guest Blogger: Dr. Stephen Chow, M.D.
University of Mississippi Medical Center
Division of Gastroenterology

“Physicians and patients are approaching healthcare differently due to the rise and popularization of medical apps”

More and more I’m seeing that the way physicians and patients are approaching healthcare is evolving due to the rise and popularization of medical apps. There are pros and cons to this.

The pros

Convenience and control: Patients are able to monitor their own progress and health efficiently from their smartphones. The thousands of apps available on both the Google Store and iTunes Stores offer a plethora of choice and convenience.

Engagement: Patients engage in their overall wellness and health outcomes with increased medical app usage. I know I find it’s much easier to sustain healthy behaviours when I use my personal medical apps, like Fitbit. Dr. Iltifat Husain, when interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, agrees that apps help “correlate personal decisions with health outcomes”. Adhering to medications, diet plans, and exercise routines are behaviours encouraged that ultimately help patient overall health.

Fitbit
Fitbit Dashboard

Education: Many healthcare apps can be informative and educational. There are apps for medical reference, terminology, and anatomy, as well as apps that help identify prescription drugs. Some apps also enable access to medical journals and other literature.

Reduced Healthcare Costs: With increased education, engagement, and communication, patients may have less need to access the traditional medical system. One study of 10,000 uninsured patients in eastern Kentucky, lead by Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, MD, former Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, found that reducing healthcare costs is exactly what happened.In his study, he found that the overall cost of healthcare reduced, accompanied by the overall amount of hospitalization and emergency visits. “It became awfully clear that the big problem in healthcare is adherence. Once the patient leaves the office, most of them forget almost everything that they’re told. By the time they get home, they go back to their regular activities.”

The Cons

Data privacy. Many health apps raise data privacy concerns. In 2013, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit advocacy organization in San Francisco, analyzed 43 free and paid apps, finding that 72 percent of them exposed personal information such as dates of birth, email addresses, and medical information. Only half of the apps linked to a privacy policy, which typically explains what personal information is gathered and if data is shared with or sold to third parties and why. The study also found that paid apps posed less of a risk to users’ privacy, likely because they do not rely on advertisers to make money.

Inaccurate information. Some apps make false claims under the façade that they are for “recreational use only”. I speak about the dangers of this in my blog post.

FDA Approval: A study published in the Journal of the American Society of Hypertension found that only 3 percent of the top 107 apps found using the terms “hypertension” and “high blood pressure” were developed by health care agencies. None of the apps had been approved by the FDA, although 14 percent could turn into a medical device to measure blood pressure. The authors of the study concluded that such apps reveal an “urgent need for greater regulation and oversight in medical app development.”

data-privacy

As with everything, there are pros and cons. Even with this new information available to patients, there is often an abundance of information and as with any direct-to-consumer product, the individual is not responsible for interpreting this data in order for it to be meaningful.  It’s up to us as physicians to continue to educate, guide, and advise on good practices for our patients to choose the best medical apps for themselves.

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