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Apps: Just What The Doctor Ordered

03 Jun 2014

By Taylor Hatmaker

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Empowered by fitness trackers, heart monitors and sleep tracking apps, consumers have taken personal health into their own hands — but doctors may soon have good reason to take it back. The quantified self is only as smart as whoever’s interpreting the data, and in many cases that means average if health-obsessed consumers fretting over what their Fitbit tells them.

Simple at best — and dangerously misinformative at worst — the world of mobile health (mHealth) apps remains wide open. The good news is that physicians are beginning to see the utility of steady data streams from smart software.

Given the growing sophistication of mobile sensors, smarter software could become an efficient alternative for a huge range of medical scenarios, from monitoring post-surgery heart conditions to diagnosing the common cold — all without a trip to the doctor’s office.

MOBILE HEALTH APPS TAKE OFF

An mHealth report cited by the FDA estimates that 500 million smartphone users worldwide will have downloaded a medical or healthcare app by 2015. By 2018, that number could jump to at least 50% of the projected 3.4 billion smartphone and tablet users. That includes not just consumers and patients, but healthcare professionals too. According to the FDA’s own guidelines for medical app approval, “Mobile applications can help people manage their own health and wellness, promote healthy living, and gain access to useful information when and where they need it. These tools are being adopted almost as quickly as they can be developed.”

Results of a study by QuantiaMD found that 37% of doctors have “prescribed” an app to their patients. Still, a follow-up poll of 250 physicians found that more than a third aren’t aware of health apps at all and 21% are turned off by an “overwhelming” amount of patient data.

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LET TECHNOLOGY LEAD

Data shouldn’t be the enemy. The process of bending data to our will and making it tell a meaningful story can be challenging, but turning away from big data’s insights for the personal health shouldn’t be an option.

“We’re no longer patients; we’re now consumers — and that’s a big difference,” said John C. Fremont, Executive Vice President at Chaotic Moon.

Fremont believes that health apps and devices would be exponentially smarter already if the medical community let tech innovators lead instead of follow. While there are significant regulatory and industry obstacles, in a smarter health software ecosystem, our apps and devices would do the work for us — not the other way around.

“Right now, the data is available, but only through our power,” Fremont said. And it’s true: Nearly all quantified health tools still require a degree of unnecessary menial tinkering — think entering calories from a meal or the details of a workout that your app or device can’t quantify on its own. “Why can’t I just send my data to people who I want to have it, like my doctor, my health information exchange, my insurance provider?”

In an ideal ecosystem, that data would be automatically beamed to the relevant parties and we’d never give it a second thought.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

As a brand new body of health-centric apps sprints toward app stores at an amazing rate, it’s critical to remember the big picture. We’re just not there yet — but we could be.

According to Chaotic Moon CEO Ben Lamm, “We need to turn raw data into meaningful action items. Even interfaces with data visualizations aren’t going far enough. We need to work to crossreference personal data with other datasets, get smarter insights and make personalized recommendations.”

Lamm believes that as soon as a major industry player makes the intersection of tech and medicine its priority, agile startups are poised to build out a reimagined future of healthcare that connects the dots. And that’s the important part.

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