Healthcare Mobile Apps: Saving Lives?

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Tech experts have noticed an explosion in mobile healthcare apps over the past few years. At first, what was thought to be a fluke trend has been identified as a viable way to lower the costs of U.S. healthcare and save lives in the process.

One of the biggest factors fueling healthcare app development is the overwhelming cost of staying well in one of the most developed nations in the world. U.S. healthcare is out of control. It's priced high even when compared to countries known for their high costs of living. Japan, Germany, Sweden and other industrialized nations fare better in the pocketbook when it comes to medicine, and they often wind up delivering higher-quality care. Legislative powers proved ineffective in solving this problem, so businesses began harnessing the power of computing to make the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease cheaper and more convenient. Mobile healthcare applications have become exceedingly popular, but how helpful are they really?

How Mobile Healthcare Apps Are Currently Used

For the vast majority of handheld users, health apps consist of calorie or mile counters, fitness advice and appointment reminders. Many are free or so low-cost that tens of millions of people flock to their - often socially significant - benefits. MyFitnessPal's 40-plus million users raked in $18 million in revenue for its company last year alone. In fact, with just the top 10 mobile healthcare apps available, free programs are downloaded four million times a day. Paid health applications are downloaded upwards of 300,000 daily. Mobile healthcare is booming. A growing segment of users have begun using mobile health apps to mitigate serious conditions. The Food and Drug Administration approved an application last year that allows a patients to take ECG readings of their own hearts via a smartphone attachment and email the results to their doctors. The app costs just under $200 and has opened the door to similar programs measuring everything from blood sugar to lung function. It's estimated that soon our annual healthcare costs will reach $4 trillion per year. These kinds of applications could increase access to lower-cost care. Recently, the FDA ended a two-year debate over whether or not to regulate these applications. The FDA has decided, based on the risk of injury due to malfunction, to limit its scope to those apps that perform functions shared by other devices under its authority. They're taking a surprisingly common sense approach to the industry and making distinctions between applications that measure heart rate for the sake of estimating calories burned and those used for assessing a patient's heart function capabilities. The agency has also dedicated itself toward quick evaluations, averaging just 67 days per review. The move by the FDA largely was prompted by a study on health apps from John Hopkins University, which showed modest health improvements arising from the industry, which boasts $718 million in revenue a year. More importantly, the study showed mobile apps led to higher rates of bad diagnoses over in-office testing. It's important for standards to be in place to prevent malfunctions and miscalculations that pose a danger to public health.

Maximizing Their Impact in the Future

The demand for affordable health care is making a big impact on the mobile app market. Venture capitalists invested $150 million into companies last year that focus on creating mobile healthcare tools. Doctors who rely heavily on data as diagnostic tools want to put these developments to work and, in doing so, may significantly reduce the time and cost of traditional healthcare. However, public health experts aren't sold on the benefits of today's mobile health applications. The National Institutes of Health has helped create programs that make tremendous strides in improving public health in areas like the prevention of diabetes. The key, says organizers, is changing lifestyle habits. Person-to-person support is a big part of that. While the potential exists for introducing this level of interaction into today's mobile health app market, it isn't there yet. In order to tap into the industry's full potential, this element has to be made a priority. As of yet, it's a little-seen feature in the estimated 97,000 health apps currently on the market.  


Hilary F.

Hilary F.

Fort Dodge, Iowa, United States

Hilary Ferrand has been writing professionally for 20 years. She makes her home in North Central Iowa with her husband, Dennis, and their five children.

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