A million apps, and counting

By Jeff Rowe
09:49 AM

OK, the headline is misleading. There aren’t really a million consumer health apps available for smartphone users.

According to this observer, there are about 9,000 available from the iTunes store. That said, her take on the health app phenomenon strikes us as, in many ways, capsulizing the future of health IT.

As she puts it, “all this innovation creates a bewildering set of problems. It’s hard to figure out what apps are available, let alone which work best. Health apps may have the potential to dramatically improve people’s lives, but those based on misleading or bogus information can cause serious harm.”

Not surprisingly, some IT vendors are pitching products that haven’t been scientifically tested, and the feds are stepping in. This past summer, the Food and Drug Administration “proposed regulations . . . for apps that could be considered medical devices. The agency . . . may focus on apps that are accessories to established medical devices used by doctors, such as smart phone apps that can display X-rays.

“It could also regulate apps that transform smart phones into medical devices by using sensors or other attachments. Already, the FDA has approved gadgets that turn smart phones into blood pressure-monitoring cuffs and pocket ultrasound machines.

“Apps that connect to consumer devices, such as blood glucose meters, may be regulated, too, if the apps display or analyze the meters’ readings, the FDA says.”

In other words, as vendors cook up more gadgets individuals can use to gather, store, and transmit health data, regulators are going to be focused on determining which ones can actually benefit a person’s health.

The premise underlying the quest for ever more pervasive health IT is that information is the key to good, or at least improved, health. To be sure, information is obviously important. But at the risk of waxing philosophical, we’d suggest that the “progress” implied in the HIT movement will probably be as circular, so to speak, as the progress that has accompanied every other technological advance in history.

There will always be new technology, and with it will come advantages and disadvantages, false starts and advances. In the case of health IT, there will be more information and new ways of accessing it. Some of that information will be useful, but some, perhaps much, will not.

Not surprisingly, HIT policymakers and advocates have a tendency to promote their ideas on the assumption that those idea will automatically “improve” the lives of many. Such optimism is necessary, but it is perhaps more realistic to assume that the future, when it comes, will be just a little bit more complicated.