Within the past decade, over 165,000 mobile health apps have launched, with thousands more on the way. Health insurance companies have begun recommending apps to their customers, and are rapidly working to develop their own. Pharmaceutical companies have coded apps for the diseases that their medicines target, while food and nutrition companies continue to promote apps focused on health and wellness.
But for the vast majority of healthcare apps, you won’t find any medical professionals directly involved. This is the equivalent of having the American Diabetes Association or the American Heart Association operated by pharmaceutical or medical device companies. If this were the case, I’m willing to bet that people would be more hesitant in trusting their recommendations.
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And yet on our mobile devices, where increasingly more of our lives are spent, people confidently delve into the Wild West of pseudo-advice and potentially dangerous recommendations. The only groups here resembling any type of professional “American Mobile Health Association” are trade organizations. We need something more, and I say this from the perspective of a practicing emergency physician and potential patient. We deserve better.
The Barriers and Opportunities
The explosion in mobile healthcare stems from the conviction that increased patient engagement leads to better health, especially for those with chronic conditions. Moreover, low barriers for entry—the FDA has consistently shied away from regulating most of the mobile healthcare market—makes marketing fairly easy. The opportunity is large, and it’s understandable why so much attention is focused here: The global mHealth market could grow to $46.2 billion by 2021 from $13.2 billion last year, according to BCC Research.
But like any new frontier, the emergence of healthcare apps leaves a lot to be desired. Studies have shown that high download rates are rarely accompanied by high usage, even when an app has been endorsed by a physician. And physicians are, by and large, reluctant to completely buy in to mobile health. This is for good reasons: Most apps aren’t required to conform to HIPAA privacy standards, and more importantly, there is virtually no data about what works and what doesn’t. There have even been a few cases of “app inaccuracy” that led to FTC intervention and fines.