According to research conducted in November of 2016, by the Pew Research Center, 77% of Americans currently own a smartphone. This percentage includes dramatic increases in the age 50-64 (16%) and 65 and older (12%) populations since 2015. Consumers of healthcare are more connected and knowledgeable than ever before. Healthcare providers have embraced the benefits of focusing efforts on preventative services and health maintenance outside of the office setting. This focus is also shared by the Healthy People 2020 initiative, which has a goal whose objectives may be met in part by increasing utilization of the electronic platform that smartphones provide.
The goal for Health Communication and Health Information Technology reads: Use health communication strategies and health information technology to improve population health outcomes and health care quality, and to achieve health equity. Among the objectives are; to provide personalized self-management tools and resources, building social support networks, and increasing health literacy skills. All these objectives lend themselves to the connectedness that one can achieve with a smartphone and apps that can be personalized.
Personalized self-management tools and resources are widely available in both Apple’s App Store platform for iPhone, and Google’s Android store. Apple’s core Health app itself provides numerous health related services. You can set goals with reminders for activity, nutrition, sleep, and mindfulness. Consumers have the ability to track and log activities such as miles ran/walked, hours of sleep attained, and calories burned. Combine that with the integration of an Apple Watch, and a multitude of third party apps that integrate with the app, and you can achieve more detailed information, and track core vital sign measurements during any activity for a more comprehensive recording of your activity.
Another key feature of Apple Health is the ability to pull in and store personal medical records. More and more medical providers and health systems are offering health records as Clinical Document Architecture files on their health portals, and having a central location for records on your person at all times, is a tremendous benefit. Google’s offering, Fit, while lacking many of the features of the Health app, still provides the ability to create customized workout regimens and track physical fitness. Both platforms provide consumers with the ability to design activities to achieve personal health goals.
Facebook is on pace to reach over 2 billion monthly active users sometime in 2017. Facebook’s mobile app is one of the top downloaded apps regardless of platform. While the Healthy People 2020 stated objective of building social support networks is not specifically aimed at social media forums, there is no dispute that millions of consumers look to this and other social networking forums for support. Facebook has over 220 condition specific online support groups listed on their SupportGroups.com home page. While not as traditional as a face to face gathering, the Mayo Clinic highlights some of the benefits of support groups, regardless of format: feeling less lonely, isolated or judged, gaining a sense of empowerment and control, developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation, and being able to compare notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative therapies. They specifically mention social networking as a resource. The 24 hour availability provided through an online forum is a benefit that cannot be disputed. Anyone with access to a smartphone has access to support.
Health literacy may be defined as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy is crucial in providing healthcare and services, as low literacy has been linked to poor outcomes such as higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventative services. The ability to store and share personal health records and information, as mentioned above from within an app, can help improve literacy. Utilizing an app to set personal healthcare goals and track the progress toward achieving those goals allows consumers to be more engaged in self-care and disease management. Working with healthcare providers to create these goals and activities within the context of a health related app would provide wonderful value. The FollowMyHealth app, developed by Allscripts, is a great example of an app that can help improve overall health literacy. This app automatically updates with information such as blood pressure readings, changes in weight, and glucose readings. This can enable consumers to have a better understanding of healthy choices as they pertain to existing diseases, as well as prevention of future disease. Real time data, from the convenience of a smartphone app can help consumers be more aware of the impact their daily activities and decisions have on their wellbeing. Consumers can also utilize the app to schedule doctor appointments, request prescription refills, and view/pay bills. Managing all aspects of healthcare from the convenience of a smartphone app is an ideal solution for an on-the-go society.
Consumers and healthcare providers will soon have an additional layer of confidence in these apps, as this past Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration revealed their Digital Health Innovation Plan. One of the key objectives, per FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, is to focus on health-related apps and the institution of policies and regulatory tools to “encourage safe and effective innovation”. This initiative has been widely lauded as many healthcare IT leaders feel that it is of great importance to provide a regulatory process for new devices and therapies, while also looking to provide statistics and evidence to identify gaps in the currently delivery systems, and help guide which future innovations should be pursued.
Smartphones and apps have become an integral tool in how people engage with their environment and gather information. Leveraging the available technology through health related apps, which provides instantaneous data, seems like a natural progression in the ongoing drive to increase personal health and wellness across all populations.