Healthcare apps: Ripe for the picking?

Experts say, 'yes, very soon'
By Diana Manos
12:00 AM


"The singularity is near," says Ray Kurzweil, author, inventor, futurist and entrepreneur, who announced this past December he would be joining Google as director of engineering, with unlimited resources for researching artificial intelligence. 

In Kurzweil's New York Times' bestseller, aptly titled, "The Singularity is Near," he describes the singularity as "a period in which the pace of technology change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed." 

If one were to look at the potential effect of mobile apps on healthcare today, they might be inclined to agree with Kursweil. Apps are being created, developed and marketed at speeds never dreamed of before, nowhere with more promise for a positive impact on human life, than in healthcare.  

One of the challenges for physicians is in knowing what is available. This dilemma has given rise to publications, such as the online iMedicalApps, written by physicians for physicians, with an eye to finding and analyzing apps as they come onto the market. 

Pedja Klasnja, an assistant professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, specializes in human-computer interaction. In essence, he conducts research "to see if apps work." Most of his research has been in the cancer realm, where the apps have helped increase the coordination of care between how the patient is feeling on chemotherapy and the speed with which a doctor receives that information.

According to Klasnja, most healthcare apps today are paid for and used as a result of funded studies. The bulk of the apps are used to remotely monitor patients with asthma, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Patients push information to their doctors, using an app. 

Another category of healthcare apps includes what Klasnja calls "coaching" apps. These apps are helpful to keep clinicians informed about patients with chronic diseases, with the information used to problem-solve and educate patients toward better management of their diseases.

Of course, mobile phone texts have been useful for some time, in prompting medication adherence or reminding patients of medical appointments, he says. Patient portals used on mobile phones are another example of mobile care currently being used. 

More recently, apps are being used for remote consultations. These kinds of apps can push specialty expertise into regional areas where that expertise is not available.  

Despite the positive impact Klasnja has witnessed in his studies of healthcare apps, he says he has never seen an incident where a healthcare organization kept the technology after the research project and funding ended. 

"I don't know of any doctors who have implemented the apps out of their own free will, yet. But, I think that is going to be changing," he says. "Doctors who use healthcare apps will find they have a competitive advantage in the market."

Klasnja says this is particularly true in the management of chronic pain.  Right now, doctors have very little information on the fluctuation of pain day-to-day, in between patient visits."