Mobile health apps – help or hindrance?

We’re on the countdown to Christmas. The decorations have been up in towns and cities since September, the annual family argument has already started about who’s having dinner where and the technology companies are advertising every mobile gadget you could ever think of.

According to, in 2013, mobile devices will pass PCs to become the most common web access tools and by 2015; over 80% of handsets in mature markets will be smart phones. With this increase in mobile technology comes the inevitable development of apps to support it. There is an app for almost everything.

Such has been the speed at which mobile technology has advanced that now there are ‘professional’ apps aimed at business processes as well as ‘personal’ apps aimed at the consumer. And healthcare hasn’t escaped this trend.

There are two key elements to the future of health-related mobile technology. The first is the increasing amount of apps aimed at the consumer. You can record your calorie intake, monitor your heart rate and self-diagnose the strange lump on your arm whilst navigating your way around the local countryside on your bike – should you wish.

In contrast, the development of professional mobile apps is also increasing. The management and input of patient data, observations and assessments, procurement of services and solutions, clinical workflow and task management are just some of the many processes now able to be undertaken via a mobile device.

Such is the popularity of this new technology that clinicians are being actively encouraged to ‘have a go’ themselves. Code4Health was announced as part of the official NHS information technology strategy launched by Tim Kelsey, director of patients and information for NHS England, in October last year. The government hopes that by training healthcare professionals they will be able to design simple prototypes of smartphone apps or system tools that they think could make the NHS work better. However, we are still awaiting details of Code4Health’s launch and the criteria for eligibility.

In the meantime, the injection of funding via the £1bn government technology fund will encourage NHS trusts to embrace new technology. The digital era is going to bring about some phenomenal advances in healthcare but there are some massive obstacles to overcome before we proclaim it has solved all of our problems.

Let’s start with privacy. Yes that old chestnut (excuse Christmas related pun). How will the developers of the wide array of health apps ensure that their respective app protects the data held within it? Someone somewhere might want it and be able to hack into a mobile device or in fact the apps which sit on it? Given the recommendations made in the Caldicott2 report on confidentiality and data privacy in the NHS, surely there is some risk involved?

Then there is the issue of the hypochondriac and the associated problems of using the web based applications for self-diagnosis. How reliable are these personal health apps? Will they ease the pressure on the NHS or make it worse as people wrongly diagnose conditions? A survey of over 2,000 people by the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service, found that 63% of people that Google their headache symptoms will self-diagnose a brain tumour. Is this really helping to alleviate the pressure on our health service?

What is certain is that change is needed but that change needs to be carefully managed. Patients are becoming more informed – whether that be from researching their condition from their hospital bed or identifying that their symptoms can be more effectively treated from home. Apps are encouraging the individual to take more responsibility for their own health and while this is no doubt a positive move and one that is at the heart of the NHS, we need to be sure we can help support that cultural change.

The change facing clinicians and trust management is more significant. Clinicians need solutions that support their daily tasks and do not add to the already heavy administrative burden they face. The hospital management on the other hand have a nice shiny new tech fund to dip into but need to meet certain criteria and then match the funding they get. Should they be lucky enough to get the thumbs up, there is then added pressure on IT departments to support new and constantly changing technology infrastructures. It’s not all plain sailing.

There is little we can do to control the emergence of personal health apps. Without regulations, they are two-a-penny. Mobile solutions designed to improve the clinical environment are a different story however. HANDI is a not-for-profit organisation set up to enable learning and partnerships in health and care and to work to create a community in which the promise of apps can be fully realised. Made up of clinicians, developers and health informatics experts, they believe healthcare apps for patients, carers and health and care professionals provide the key to enabling IT to transform our health service.

We have to acknowledge that mobile technology isn’t going to go away. It’s the future of our society and we all need to embrace the change and make the most of it. How we manage this is crucial and will likely play a significant part in the long-term future of the NHS. There will no doubt be an app for that.

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