Are mobile health apps likely to have a significant impact on the healthcare industry? If the numbers are anything to go by, the answer would be a resounding yes. There are nearly 100,000 health and fitness-related apps available for download on Google Play and Apple's App Store. With millions of downloads a day, and the mobile health industry likely to grow to $26 billion by 2017, it is believed that almost half of all smartphone users will have at least one health app on their device. Unsurprisingly, the most popular apps are related to WEIGHT loss and fitness.
However, what is on offer today addresses a far more serious health issue than counting calories. Recently the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an app that allows doctors and caregivers to track blood sugar levels of diabetic patients in real time. A wire-like sensor is inserted just under the skin and this transmits data to a monitor that is worn externally. By logging onto the app, patients can choose with whom to share the information. What makes this app special is that it is the first time the FDA has approved an app since it started regulating medical apps in 2013. Alberto Gutierrez, the director of the FDA's Office of in Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health, was quoted as saying that this innovative technology has been eagerly awaited by the diabetes community, especially caregivers of children with diabetes who want to monitor their glucose levels remotely.
But this too is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine being able to make appointments, check the results of your blood tests, refill your prescription, and communicate with your doctor from your mobile device. Three years ago, a US-based integrated managed care consortium, Kaiser Permanente, made its entire electronic healthcare system available to all its users via an Android app. At the time, it was announced that more than 95,000 users had downloaded the app. Now imagine the scale if this were available to all mobile users over the next two years. The impact would be tremendous.
Consider the usefulness of such technology in countries like India, where people are more likely to have access to a mobile network than to healthcare or even clean drinking water. In countries such as the US, where insurance companies mandate personal visits to the doctor, the caregivers and patients can decide when an online consultation is sufficient or if a patient is really in need of in-person treatment. Just think of how much this could save in terms of time and cost.
However, it's not an entirely rosy picture as yet. To paraphrase a popular adage - with great empowerment comes great responsibility. The need to regulate the information on apps and filter out the legitimate ones will be crucial. Imagine all your personal health data in the wrong hands. We are far less discriminating in what permissions we give in our eagerness to try a new technology. But a far more basic concern is the reliability of all the apps available on the Net. While apps are far more engaging and will beat the need for the long drawn out process of visiting a practitioner for a lengthy diagnosis, it will be imperative to know whether you are literally tapping into a reliable resource.