The age of Digital Health Apps

Estimated reading time 2 minutes 15 seconds.

By Dr Ryan Grech

There are over 325,000 (2017) apps available to download classified as Health & Fitness app. This number is constantly increasing with tens of thousands of new apps being developed and made available on the Apple or Google Play store every week [1]. A lot of different chronic health conditions are covered from Diabetes Mellitus to COPD to Parkinson’s disease. Undoubtedly, not all of these applications are of good quality, but the ones that are; are having a huge impact in the lives of patients.

Take a recent study at John Hopkin’s University where researchers have created an app called HopkinsPD which was validated in generating an objective severity score for Parkinson’s symptoms. The app uses gait, reaction time, voice & finger tapping to generate a score [2]. Since the app is at the fingertips of the patient any time of day during the whole week clinicians were able to get more data and thus a more objective idea of the patient’s symptoms thus gaining an increased insight into the daily functioning of the patient adjusting the respective medication accordingly. This can also be used to assess better new therapeutics where again, more data means better appraisal.

Take diabetes apps, nowadays we are inundated by them but most offer excellent ways of tracking blood sugar readings, reminding people to take their medication and helping with the calculation of insulin in insulin dependent diabetics which can be a difficult thing to do especially taking into consideration physical activity and what kind of food was eaten. All in all it helps diabetics to live a more normal unrestricted life and makes them more engaged with their own care.

Clearly one can’t dispute the potential benefit that these health apps provide to enable better care which in turn can decrease morbidity & mortality as well as reduce strains on primary healthcare and A&E. For example, various studies have shown that small but imperative behavioural changes instigated by health apps and devices such as Fitbit offer promise in management and prevention of cardiovascular disease [3].

One must however not forget that health apps in app stores do not undergo any rigorous scrutiny, something that some organisations are starting to target. Moreover, healthcare professionals have not yet embraced fully the concept of digital health apps, particularly within the realms of tracking unorthodox diseases.

I firmly believe that as we progress and end up with better reviewing of these health apps, it will become standard practice to prescribe apps just like we prescribe drugs. We must always think of anything digital as augmenting the doctor and empowering the patient.

[1] Research 2 Guidance (2017). mHealth App Economics 2017, Current Status and Future Trends in Mobile Health

[2] Zhan, A., et al. (2018). Using Smartphones and Machine Learning to Quantify Parkinson Disease Severity. JAMA Neurology, 75(7), p.876.

[3] Kelli, M. H., et al. (2017). The future of Mobile Health Applications and devices in Cardiovascular Health. Euro Med J Innov. 2017 Jan; 2017: p92-97.