Should You Recommend Health Apps?

David Lee Scher, MD


May 07, 2013

The Use of Health Apps Is Exploding

The advent of health and fitness software applications, or "apps," has both mirrored and advanced the success of mobile computing. There are an estimated 40,000 of these apps in various online catalogs. Among technology and healthcare observers, consensus is growing that such apps will become an integral part healthcare delivery in the next few years.

Consider: A 2012 mobile health survey by the Pew Internet research firm revealed that of all cellphones owned in the United States, one half are smartphones, and 52% of smartphone owners gather health information via their phone.[1] The people most likely to seek health information on their cellphones are caregivers, patients who were given a recent diagnosis, and those whose health condition has significantly changed. Health apps were downloaded by 19% of smartphone owners, with diet, exercise, and weight-management apps being most popular.

I divide health and medical apps into 4 broad categories: general healthcare and fitness, medical information, remote consultation and collaboration, and healthcare system management tools. Although most physicians have smartphones, to date they have primarily used apps as reference tools in the clinical setting.

According to a 2013 survey of 694 physicians by the electronic health record (EHR) vendor eClinicalWorks, 93% of the respondents found value in having a mobile health app connected to their EHR.[2] In addition, 93% believed that mobile health apps can improve a patient's health outcome, and 89% were likely to recommend a mobile health app to a patient. Doctors who took part thought that apps connected to an EHR and related to medication adherence, diabetes, and preventive medicine could make the biggest impact.

There are also other benefits of apps in patient care that may not be as obvious.

Improve the Doctor/Patient Relationship

You are being inundated with federal and state regulations for patient care, and an increasingly larger portion of your time is occupied with non-direct-care activities. The quality of time you spend during office visits therefore becomes more important. In a study of patients with breast cancer and hypertension, more effective information-gathering by patients and more information provided by physicians resulted in better patient outcomes.[3] The role of information exchange is thus a key factor in effective patient care.

With this in mind, the rise in the use of smartphones for health education by patients presents opportunities for physicians to increase information exchange via downloadable apps. The mere fact that you prescribe or recommend an app to a patient conveys multiple messages. For example, it says that you are a patient advocate. A recommendation for a tool that the patient can download and control sends a strong message of personal empowerment. Anything that increases communication in a bidirectional way is good for the physician/patient relationship.

Many apps provide patients with information and general guidance regarding their diagnoses. Office appointment and reminder apps benefit both patients and you. Medication adherence apps, weight management and fitness apps, and other health data trackers will ideally instill a sense of both patient engagement and partnership with their physicians and other healthcare providers.