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Tufts Public Health » Mobile Health » Digital Health Trends: Need a second opinion? There’s an app for that.

Digital Health Trends: Need a second opinion? There’s an app for that.

iphone-stethoscopeIn this digital age, we are constantly on our phones. In the last week, how many of us have used an app on our smartphone to track or monitor our health- probably the majority of us. But are these health apps reliable?

It seems there is an app for almost every health behavior out there, including losing weight, managing diabetes, monitoring sleep quality, improving medication adherence, and even measuring your blood pressure. With over 165,000 health-related apps, it is forecasted that by 2017 these apps will have been downloaded over 1.7 billion times.

Studies suggest that mobile health apps will become people’s preferred resource for medical information over physicians. Health applications can be beneficial in that they allow consumers to be more in charge of their health. But are there down-sides to receiving digital information versus that from a medical professional?

According to The Wall Street Journal, “People are right to worry that the patient-doctor relationship could be eroded, diminishing the human touch in medicine.” However, Medical News Today argues that mobile health data sharing may boost communication between doctor and patient. Wearable technology and health apps may aid in communication by being more accurate than patient self-reports and recalls.

A big concern about the digital health communication trend comes from the consumers’ interpretation and application of this information. Not only are apps recording medical data, they are also computing algorithms to interpret what this data means. As a cardiologist told the Wall Street Journal, “I had an ECG emailed to me by a patient, with the subject line, I’m in atrial fib, now what do I do?’ I immediately knew that the world had changed.” What happens when consumers incorrectly self-diagnose, delay medical intervention, and put their health in jeopardy?

Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM, assistant professor of public health and community medicine, states, “The biggest problem is that people now have access to so much more information, credible or not. Many people are confident in their skills in using digital information in every other aspect of their lives and don’t know the importance of checking the source, the date, etc. This is true for websites, apps, and social media.”

Anyone, medical professional or layperson, can create a health app, and medical accuracy is not reviewed before apps are released for use by the public. The FDA does not regulate mobile health apps unless they meet the definition of a medical device, or allow doctors to make a diagnosis based on an image. Through this approach, it hopes to “support innovation while protecting consumer safety.”

It is important if you use health apps, to use them in conjunction with routine medical visits. Mobile health users need to be aware of the credibility of the information received through each app. If you need a second opinion, it may be in the palm of your hand.

by Sara Suter, MPH Candidate ’16

Filed under: Mobile Health · Tags: ,

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