Do Health Apps Yield Patient Results?

“There’s an app for that.”

It seems like everything can now be managed from a smartphone. Apps abound to help us shop and work and play. Pets can even be fitted with GPS collars so we can track their travels over the Internet. More than 20,000 apps also claim to manage our health, including the most popular diet method in a Consumer Reports annual survey. Some may be revolutionary, while others may be useless.

Diet diaries and pedometers have made way for devices that chart workouts using GPS and accelerometers to directly measure activity. Other services let participants earn workout rewards or log miles for charities. Wi-fi chipped blood pressure cuffs and bathroom scales can send data straight to an online logbook, showing the health results of those efforts in the gym and kitchen.

On the provider side, apps make it easier to get up-to-the-minute data to help with diagnosis and treatment. Accessing the latest treatment guidelines just requires pulling out a smartphone and tapping its screen. Integration of electronic records into mobile devices helps us keep track of what is going on with our patients, rather than relying on our (faulty) memories for after-hours calls. Choosing these sorts of apps requires little thought; they are clearly useful.

Things get trickier for patients. How can they know which apps provide useful health management, as opposed to others that may provide bad advice? Dedicated patient groups, the e-patients, may test and review apps for each other. At least one health app boutique service, Happtique (www.happtique.com), gathers apps for member review. Providers can use the platform to prescribe apps to their patients, even creating their own virtual app store. The platform also provides a secure environment for transmitting data from services such as glucose trackers to health care records.

Diabetes tracking may be the most advanced health app area. Glucose monitors and insulin pumps can send their data directly to online information hubs. Add in diet and activity tracking, and these services become a way to look at all aspects of glycemic control and effect over time.

What is missing for apps? Results. While these apps should provide patients better health support, we do not have data to show better outcomes yet.

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We also do not have the comprehensive apps for kidney patients that we do for diabetes. Where is the app that charts blood pressure, diet, and activity? Where is the diet tracker that can tell the user phosphate and potassium content of their food choices? Where is the dialysis tracker with blood pressure, weight, and dialysis settings automatically charted to look for trends?

Managing chronic disease means keeping track of all aspects of an illness. Treatment includes medications and diet, as well as monitoring signs and symptoms. Apps may help patients do this better, perhaps improving health outcomes. That is our goal, and there will be an app.

Notes

[1] Pascale Lane, MD, is editor-in-chief of ASN Kidney News.

March 2013 (Vol. 5, Number 3)