Since the launch of the iPhone a decade ago, smartphones have revolutionised how we communicate and manage our daily lives. Whether you’re a clinician or consumer, this is becoming increasingly the case in the health space. 

There has been an explosion in the number of health-related mobile apps in recent years, with an estimated 165,000 in circulation according to a recent study by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.(1) Our very own Doctors’ Health Fund app is a prime example of this trend, where we have leveraged mobile technology to create a fast and simple way for you to make claims on the go. 

Whether you’re an app novice or an active user, the following break-down of consumer app types can help you explore what may be of use to your family and your patients. 

Most health apps fall into one or more of the following categories. 

Informational 

Information-based apps are essentially an avenue for learning more about a topic, whether it be symptoms of a common cold, how to eat better or managing pregnancy. While many of the first wave of these apps were little more than a miniature version of their parent website, plenty have evolved to include useful mobile-specific features. A good example is the Victorian-based Better Health Channel app, which in addition to the abovementioned kind of information, enables the user to locate specific health services and create notifications in real time for external factors such as UV, smog and pollen. 

Activity tracking 

Whether it be number of steps per day, hours of sleep, heart rate or calorie consumption, technology is enabling us to track all manner of physical activity using the mobile phone as the hub. The iOS Health app and Google Fit are examples of where things are heading – each consolidates data from the user’s phone, wearable devices and other apps to gather and analyse data on physical activity, nutrition and sleep. GP Registrar and Doctors’ Health Fund member Dr Amanda Brownlow discusses the positives and potential pitfalls of activity tracking apps. “I personally make use of apps that assist with nutrition and fitness, while some of my patients find ones that track sleep quality or steps per day are really useful. I tell them the main thing to keep in mind is that certain stats that an app generates have the potential to falsely reassure them that they are exercising adequately or getting enough sleep.” Indeed, a randomized control trial by the University of Pittsburgh found that participants given the advantage of a wearable activity tracker were less successful in losing weight than their peers who had the standard behavioural weight loss intervention.(2)

Health monitoring 

From a data-gathering perspective, health monitoring is similar to wellness tracking. The difference is health monitoring apps assist people manage health complaints. Measuring heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose are some examples of where mobile apps are being used in conjunction with other devices to track and help monitor certain conditions. It’s important to note that apps using a phone’s in-built hardware (such as the camera or microphone) for making these measurements should be treated with caution as this article in The Conversation points out. 

Patient compliance 

Many patients - especially those with chronic conditions - often have instructions to follow in between appointments, like rehabilitation exercises and management of prescribed medications. An app that supports the latter is Medicinelist+ by NPS Medicinewise which helps the patient keep track of medication needs by sending reminder alerts and keeping a record of doses taken. It can also assist in interactions with practitioners reviewing the patient’s medicines. 

Condition-specific 

As with patient compliance apps, condition-specific ones can be a useful take-home accompaniment to point-of-care treatment. Many condition-specific apps now combine features from several of the categories listed above. For example the Patient IBS app from the UK helps people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) journal bowel movements (activity tracking) and record symptoms (health monitoring), view up-to-date information on IBS written by doctors for patients (patient compliance) and search patient information from within the app (information). 

As the examples above demonstrate, apps can make it easier for people to stay healthy and help motivate patients needing to manage the complexities of their healthcare. Given the increasing prevalence of chronic disease and Australia’s ageing population, a discerning approach to leveraging consumer technology has a part to play in making healthcare more sustainable. So long as patients understand they can’t substitute for your clinical expertise as a doctor, there is plenty of room for exploring how apps can play a supporting role in anyone’s healthcare journey. App directories from government-endorsed health organisations such as Healthdirect can be a helpful guide to road-testing an app for yourself.

(1) Patient Adoption of mHealth, IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, September 2015. 

(2) Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), September 2016.