Last year was heralded as the year of DIY health – in 2012 patients looked increasingly to diagnose themselves through various websites and applications (apps). Patients went to their doctors with a “better” understanding of what was wrong with them, and more opinions on what drugs they “should” be prescribed. This year, with patients more accustomed to accessing information about their health through these digital channels, it is time for the healthcare industry to step up its game.
Using apps to maintain and improve our health makes sense. Our mobiles are the most cherished devices we own, and with us 24/7. Add to this the growing popularity of using apps to monitor fitness, and it is obvious that they could offer a great route to better engage consumers in their own healthcare programmes.
The problem is that, while consumer appetite for these kinds of apps has grown, the apps still suffer the same issues and stigmas as web-based information sources on disease and health. Many of these issues can be glossed over but some cannot. Indeed, as reported by the Guardian, apps can actually be harmful to our health. What we need is guidance as to which apps are good for our health and why.
Increasingly, consumers expect this guidance to come from their healthcare professionals as part of their treatment programme. But professionals need advice on the apps too.
Over the past few years, a number of app verification organisations have been set up whose role is to identify which apps are fit for purpose, but the mobile industry needs to be doing more – not only to help the healthcare industry ascertain which apps could work for their patients and why, but to help the apps evolve into useful tools for them.
Apps work best where the features of the mobile device are used to good effect. In the health space, this means that apps are better suited to managing and treating illness – despite the trend towards using apps to self-diagnose. For example, some of the best apps out there make use of the diary/logging aspects of mobile phones to help manage illnesses.
Of course, if apps are to become a more integral part of treatment programmes, the basics have to be right. But the healthcare industry shouldn’t ignore their full potential. In the next two to three years, patients will be able to record biological functions automatically through apps. This is likely to start with the automatic continuous recording of pulse, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, before moving to recording of drug levels in blood and organ function. When this happens depends on when the measurement technology is available. Mobile devices already have the capability to record, plan and report on the data; it just needs to be used!
By making better use of the capabilities offered by mobiles, we can significantly improve effectiveness in the healthcare sector. Consumer engagement with their own treatment programmes will increase, not only helping healthcare professionals to identify issues earlier on but to monitor more effectively how their prescribed treatments are working.
The biggest barrier to the widespread adoption of apps as part of a treatment programme is trust of the apps from within the industry. For years, patients diagnosed with a disease have been told not to turn to the internet for advice or to go only to trusted resources However, with the plethora of fitness apps demonstrating that they can have a positive impact on physical health, the industry should start putting some faith in apps.
Apps are much more robust today than when they first launched and they will continue to improve exponentially as technologies evolve and the next generation of “digitally savvy” doctors start to promote them. I’m not suggesting that we will soon see mobile phones taking on the role of doctors, but I do believe that apps will become more widely used in both the diagnosis and treatment of all our ailments.
With consumer demand for these apps set to keep growing, the question is: who will provide them? If the pharma and healthcare industries don’t act now and invest in providing robust, well-tested apps then the army of bedroom developers will step in to meet these consumer demands at a cost to both the industry and consumers.
Ashley Bolser is managing director of marketing agency Bolser