Yep. There’s a health app for that…

By Jeannine Rowan, Senior Vice President — April 10, 2015

With more than 100,000 mHealth apps on the market as of last year,1 the use of mHealth and fitness apps is out-pacing the overall app industry by a whopping 87 percent.2 And the dollars and cents behind the mHealth trend are significant. According to research2guidance’s highly touted mHealth App Developer Economics 2014 report, total mHealth market revenue reached $2.4 billion in 2013 and is expected to grow to $26 billion by 2017.

The potential benefits of mHealth are easy to grasp: if patients are empowered to play a more active role in managing their own health, their experiences and outcomes will be enhanced, time in the doctor’s office or hospital will be reduced and per capita costs will go down.

But do these apps really work? Evidence suggests some really do. In a randomized, controlled clinical trial of adults with type 1 diabetes, for example, the use of a diabetes management app combined with texts from a certified diabetes educator significantly decreased blood sugar levels.3

Does this success suggest that the next time your back aches or your child complains of an ear ache you should abandon a trip to doctor’s office in favor of a virtual trip to the App Store? Not quite yet.

For starters, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance is shaping up to be a veritable problem for mHealth apps that include data-sharing with healthcare providers or health plans. Data security and encryption standards on smart phones just aren’t as high as they are on a computer. Until these issues are resolved, they will continue to constrain the clinical utility of the mHealth universe.

Next — regulation. The FDA continues to struggle with criteria that clearly define which apps they will regulate. For now, the FDA seems to be steering clear of apps for things like weight loss support and sleep management that don’t refer to treating a specific disease or condition. But for those meant to reduce disease risk or improve patient quality of life, the agency requires developers to undertake the same risk-benefit analyses required of companies making traditional medical devices. That’s no small undertaking for even the most sophisticated app developer — and a deal-breaker for many.

What does this mean for the patient community? Mobile patient empowerment is shaping up to be a good thing, and while there are challenges, early evidence supports the growing mHealth trend and its potential to improve outcomes and reduce costs. But as the technology improves, it’s important to remember that every patient is different; as such, the “human factor” and a role for the healthcare provider will continue to be critical in the mobile management of illnesses.

So download, swipe and track away. But don’t forego that relationship with your health care provider — at least not yet…