The use of smartphones amongst health care professionals is now estimated to be in excess of 85%, with Apple's iPhone currently being the most popular platform. There is a wealth of information (from popular blogs, to formal journals) that demonstrate the potential of smartphone apps (and technology in general) to improve healthcare. However, despite widespread use of smartphones, proper application of the software at our disposal has been arguably poor. The latest mobile Apple operating system 'iOS 8', may be the start of a long-awaited overhaul of the current health apps available.
The Apple app store boasts many hundreds of what it describes as 'medical' apps. A review of the 'Top 200' medical apps conducted in 2012 by this author revealed that 49% were in fact general health or lifestyle applications aimed at the general public. The same process was repeated this year (2014) and demonstrated that this percentage has increased to 54%. This increase in apps aimed at the general public suggests that Apple do not differentiate between 'medical apps' and 'health and lifestyle' apps. This could negatively affect health care professionals' perception of the otherwise high-quality medical apps that are available. In addition, of the remaining percentage of apps aimed at healthcare professionals, only 5.56% were deemed to be of clinical benefit (an increased from 3% in 2012). The overwhelming majority of 'medical' apps aimed at medical professionals are actually educational in content and usually focus on the learning of anatomy.
Much like the 'medical' apps, only a limited selection of the health apps that are aimed at the public/patient are deemed to be high-quality. Prominent examples include the blood glucose monitors that record data in to a smartphone and similarly, the blood pressure and pain diaries. These examples focus on people with medical conditions, but it is important to note the potential of apps in preventative medicine too (i.e. promoting general health). Typical high-quality apps in this category include RunKeeper and Map My Ride. These apps allow everyone to become their own personal trainer and keep an accurate record of their physical activity. Smartphones will even send reminders to the user that a workout is due, and the option is present to share your stats and 'compete' with friends/family via social media. These features highlight the absolute vanguard of what could potentially come in terms of technology influencing healthy living.
A current criticism of health apps is that most (if not all) are individual enterprises with very little information shared between them. The metaphor of 'silos' is used to represent these large vessels of information that sit adjacent to one another whilst never benefiting from the contents of one another. The iOS 8 operating system hopes to ameliorate this current issue with its new Health app and HealthKit, which will enable developers and their apps to pull data from several health related apps into one streamlined app. It is envisaged that this app will be able to feed (with the appropriate permissions of course) health related information to your family physician for health monitoring purposes. This could have impressive effects in community blood pressure management and blood glucose management (just to name the obvious ones).
There are scattered anecdotal reports of users being wary of centralised health information and as always Data Protection is a major concern (whether it is warranted or not).
In addition, whilst a large percentage of the population may have a smartphone many may still opt not to use health related apps. Poor uptake will obviously limit the perception of this medium as a method of health monitoring.
Smartphone usage is high and many healthcare related apps are already available either to serve as medical tools to healthcare professionals or health monitoring devices for the public. Currently, Apple does not seem to differentiate between medical and lifestyle apps on its app store and many lower quality apps seem to appear in 'medical' searches. Also, Current apps do not share information. However, with iOS 8 it seems that Apple seems to be addressing several key issues surrounding the use of the iPhone as a health monitoring device. For the moment it seems that healthcare professionals will have to harness this patient-held approach. Perhaps direct improvements to the medical aspect of the Apple app store and the quality and originality of apps aimed at doctors is still a little way off.