Health-Related Apps: Pros, Cons and Scoring

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How many steps do you take in a day?  How many steps SHOULD you take in a day?  10,000...I bet that’s the number that you just thought of - it’s certainly the benchmark for every fitness tracker or health app that I’ve ever used or seen.  

But ask Greg Hager, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, and he’ll probably tell you that the 10,000 step goal is a 1960s throwback and that, really, there’s not a one-size-fits-all number that is appropriate (Source: The Guardian). Herein lies one of the major arguments against the use of health-related applications. Unless a health app turns your smartphone into a medical device, the Food and Drug Administration considers it to be low-risk and does not, therefore, regulate its development (Source: ADVANCE).  This enables the industry to sell apps that are untested and to make health claims that are unvalidated, making it impossible to say whether apps are serving intended effects. Couple that with individuals who may not understand an app’s context, and you’ve got a situation where apps could potentially exacerbate medical issues.  

But hold on a second: What about all the benefits to be appreciated from using a health app?  What about the potential to save lives and drastically improve health for people virtually EVERYWHERE???

Proponents argue that health apps promote healthy behaviour (Source: Dignity Health).  For example, a 2015 study found that users of fitness apps were 27% more likely to report being active than those who did not use apps.  And that’s child’s play when you consider the capabilities that some apps offer or may come to offer:

  • Killing around 2,500 people in the UK in 2014, melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer.  Fortunately it’s easy to cure, if you find it in time. The SkinVision app aims to combat melanoma deaths through finding, analysing, tracking and sharing functions.

  • I think it’s safe to say that, when a health emergency occurs, not many people are prepared to act. But with step-by-step instructions for a variety of common medical scenarios, the First Aid by American Red Cross app can really save lives during an emergency.  

  • Over half a million people in the UK have epilepsy, which can impact a sufferer’s memory, mood, sleep and safety.  And, although uncommon, a person with epilepsy can die during or following a seizure (Source: Epilepsy Society).  The EpiWatch helps users manage their condition by accurately tracking the onset and duration of seizures in real time. In addition to alerting a designated caregiver or family member about the episode, the app creates a correlation between episode history and medication.  Researchers hope that this app may one day help predict seizures before they happen.  

Four out of five adults in the UK now have access to a smartphone (Source: Deloitte). And, with more than 150,000 health-related apps available via the Apple store, health apps are widely available (Source: ADVANCE).  Finally, with an estimated 3.4 billion downloads to smartphones and tablets by 2018, I think we all can agree that apps will continue to gain momentum as a prominent part of treatment plans (Source: Dignity Health).  But to credit the naysayers, we must do so carefully and responsibly so that we do not exacerbate medical issues. Whether you are a patient or a caregiver, you must arm yourself with adequate information to make knowledgable decisions about which platforms/apps best suit you/your patient’s needs.

Easier said than done though, right?   Not necessarily!  Luckily, organisations like the Organisation for the Review & Care of Health Applications (ORCHA) are now in place to present “independent and impartial reviews of health and care related apps and to present this information clearly.” The organization’s platform presents apps by category or keyword and scores apps based on value and risk.  Which is good when health is involved...because why take needless risks when you can instead make informed decisions?

Erin LaFavor