Mobile health apps – gift from cyber heaven or Pandoras Box?

Stand still for a moment, point one ear westwards, and you’ll hear the low rumble of a vast technological tsunami rolling across the Atlantic. Start reading US healthcare IT publications and the sound resolves into an excited chatter about how mobile health apps are going to transform our lives for the better.

While the UK is doing well in developing mobile health apps, the momentum building up in America is of an entirely different order. The very excited Daniel Kraft MD predicts that ‘in the future we might not prescribe drugs all the time, we might prescribe apps’. Alternatively peruse Healthcare IT News which discusses the ‘stealth health’ techniques which ‘gamify’ data gathering and make it fun. There are abundant articles about how we will soon be photographing each welt, mole or mark and shooting the image off into the cloud for an instant $5 diagnosis.

There is no harm in wide-eyed enthusiasm (I still yearn for the solar-powered hover cars that Tomorrow’s World suggested would be ubiquitous by the year 2000). But we must limit the room for scams. Plenty of charlatans use the web to make false health-related offers (paternity testing, transplants, treatments for terminal illnesses). Mobile technology opens up the field even more. Imagine the harm that a dodgy remote cardiac monitoring service could do! Effective regulation is essential if we are to avoid scandals of a scale that could bring a catastrophic loss of trust.

Another problem is bedazzlement with fads and fantastical dreams when what we urgently need are effective ways to deliver better care. Mobile technology is a Godsend not a panacea. Dotcom enthusiasts confused the two and suffered the consequences.

Anyone who’s serious about getting the best out of mobile technology needs to take a hard look at what the health sector is currently struggling to do, and identify how it can be done well. That means sidestepping the temptation to produce stuff because it’s cool and focusing squarely on what the market needs.

Clinicians increasingly use mobile technology to access, share and analyse patient data. The expectation is that four billion more smart phones will be sold worldwide by 2014. This adds up to a huge potential market in the exchange and monitoring of data among care teams, and between patients and clinicians. One small example is the way that skin sensors, providing basic physiological information, could help with the care of certain autistic children who find it tough to express how they feel.

In the year ahead it will be fascinating to watch how the mobile healthcare apps market progresses. There is so much that can be achieved – Edinburgh University recently announced that it is developing iPhone apps in game form to help autistic children with common problems like following a pointing finger or recognising where someone else is looking. Hopefully the emphasis across the sector will be on genuinely delivering for clinical needs and on ensuring that patients can regard this emerging technology as something they can trust.

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