You can skip the long lines at the pharmacy counter for this one. A recent study has found that writing a prescription for mobile apps is an effective tool being used by physicians to get patients to adhere to their treatment plans.
According to IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, when physicians wrote prescriptions for apps, 30-day retention rates among patients jumped by 10% overall – and by 30% specifically for prescribed fitness apps. The report further noted, “If [mobile health application] access is streamlined with automatic log-in, upload and connectivity with provider healthcare systems, providers note an even greater potential for improved patient retention rates.” In other words, the more user-friendly the app is – on both the patient and provider side – the more likely the user is to continue to adhere to treatment.
So what does it mean for a physician to “prescribe” an app to a patient? For starters, healthcare providers have a seemingly endless array of options to choose from. Since 2013, the total number of mobile health apps has grown to 165,000, quadruple the number of such apps in existence just two years ago. Two-thirds of these are so-called wellness apps, which include fitness, lifestyle and stress, and diet and nutrition.
Another quarter are used for disease and treatment management, with just 9% of those specific to a particular disease. Within disease-specific apps, the five largest app categories are mental health (29%), diabetes (15%), blood and circulatory (8%), musculoskeletal (7%) and nervous system (6%). Only mental health and musculoskeletal were among the top five categories in 2013.
The idea is that physicians can evaluate a patients’ treatment needs and then recommend an app (or multiple apps) from among these categories that can help treat the patient. For example, a doctor might prescribe an exercise or calorie-counting app to an overweight patient. Of significant note in the study, however, is the finding that doctors have reported feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume and functionality of so many mobile health apps – a number which, as indicated above, is only likely to grow. The consequence is that physicians are turning to ratings and evaluation platforms to help them select a “prescription” – a rather troubling thought, given that literally anyone can rate and evaluate popular wellness apps such as MyFitnessPal. (Speaking of popularity, consumers may be just as overwhelmed as doctors and thus sticking to wellness apps that have already gained a following, evidenced by the fact that just 12% of mobile health apps account for 90% of all consumer downloads. Meanwhile, approximately 40% of mobile health apps have fewer than 5,000 users.)
The study also found that one in ten apps now has the capability to connect to a device or sensor, providing biofeedback and physiological function data from the patient. This, of course, has important product liability implications, given the potential risks involved with any particular device and the question of whether the app itself would need to be regulated as a medical device. Moreover, given that the percentage of mobile health apps with the capability to connect to social networks has increased from 26 to 34 percent in the past two years, privacy concerns surrounding the uploading and sharing of data continues to be a key consideration in the use of mobile health applications.
Overall, the report concludes that providers are enthusiastic about the use of mobile health apps but that certain barriers to full integration remain. As an initial matter, the majority of research studies to date focus on app usage rather than the apps’ actual effectiveness in improving patient outcomes or lowering healthcare costs. Furthermore, while apps are increasingly capable of connecting to social networks, less progress has been made in enabling apps to connect and communicate with healthcare systems. This is significant given that providers in the study emphasized that mobile health data integrated with electronic healthcare records is critical to better clinical decision-making and patient communication.
Finally, while the increase in usage and adoption of mobile health applications appears capable of generating positive and promising results, greater attention is needed to reach the most vulnerable of patients, namely the elderly and non-English speaking – the very demographics that are far less likely to make use of such technology.
If only there were an app for that.