Health News Digest

March 28, 2011

Mobilizing Good Health

Smart phones

By  Michael D. Shaw

Some of the earliest and most successful websites are devoted to health topics. Many of these are well over ten years old, and have developed large and loyal followings. This is hardly surprising as the Internet was christened the Information Superhighway, and virtually everyone has a big interest in their own health.

As connectivity and browser technology improved, all manner of health-related sites would proliferate, and the public is definitely better off. Indeed, a scant 15 or so years ago, someone diagnosed with a serious disease, who wanted to learn more about it, would be limited to long and often fruitless library searches, or the sketchy pamphlets provided by the particular disease trade association.

These days, no matter how rare the condition, there will probably be multiple websites devoted to it, and helpful resources galore can be obtained within minutes.

But people also want to interact with the information. As such, stand-alone software and web-based applications would appear allowing the user to enter certain data, for archival and analysis purposes. Personalized diet and exercise recommendations could be obtained—right at your computer.

Fair enough, but what if you’re not near your computer? Which brings us to the the world of mobile apps.

Broadly speaking, the term “mobile applications” (commonly abbreviated as “apps”) refers to software which runs on any one of a variety of so-called handheld devices—usually defined as a pocket-sized computing device, typically having a display screen with touch input and/or a miniature keyboard. This category also includes the more business-oriented enterprise devices that are provided with bar code readers, smart card readers, radio-frequency identification, and the like.

These days, the most exciting market for mobile apps is the smart phone/tablet computer universe, and there are thousands of mobile health apps currently available. One source groups the content as follows:

Calorie counting 60 percent
Cardiovascular fitness 20 percent
Strength training   9 percent
Sleep improvement   7 percent

The remaining four percent comprises more specialized apps, including the burgeoning field of remote patient monitoring. Remote patient monitoring apps serve both those in and out of the hospital.

One of the early in-patient apps allowed obstetricians to remotely access virtual real-time and historical waveform data for both the mother and baby directly from the hospital’s labor and delivery unit, utilizing only a cell phone connection. A recent app called MIAA (Medical Information, Anytime, Anywhere) lets physicians access a patient’s complete health record, from a variety of different sources spanning organizational boundaries, delivered in real time to Google Android powered mobile devices.

To get a glimpse of where things are headed for mobile apps, I spoke with Mark Stetler, CEO of Durango, Colorado-based AppMuse, a company that links businesses that have an idea for a mobile app, with developers who can create it.

I won’t say the market is saturated with the big stuff, but I will say that apps are becoming much more about where people live, and what people do on a daily basis. On the health care side, people with chronic conditions want to make doctor’s appointments, renew their prescriptions, and receive reminders over their mobile device. Others want specific, daily recommendations for their Pilates program or fitness training.

These are the type of apps that don’t get a lot of press. They’re not very sexy, but are important and practical to many people.

AppMuse provides quote opportunities to the developers for a nominal charge, after screening their list of software gurus for the right fit. The company also offers marketing services to app purveyors.

Another player of note in this space is Los Angeles based Pandora Apps. This company specializes in iPhone applications development, and boasts the health care connection of its founder, Rebecca Grossman, who serves on the board of the famed Grossman Burn Centers.

Will all these mobile health apps actually improve our health? As with all technology, you have to factor in the intangible of human behavior.

Recently, Margaret Morris, a senior researcher with Intel Corp., noted that “One of the landmines with developing and promoting health software is an assumption that people set health goals and follow them in a steadfast manner. But people have a lot of variation in motivation and we need to address the social and emotion factors that affect motivational variation.”

A Pew Research study found that while 70 percent of people want access to at least one health app, 26 percent of people who’ve downloaded them only use them once, and only two-thirds of people who have the apps use them as intended. This is not exactly an encouraging finding, since people tend to exaggerate positive health behaviors in surveys.

Nonetheless, excellent tools are surely available for those who care to use them.