Date: July 07 2012
The exploding popularity of health and medical apps is ushering a new wave of sometimes unwelcome visitors into the doctor's surgery. Smartphones and tablets (the screen kind, not the pill kind) have become mobile diagnostic devices.
Apps with specific diagnostic functions are now becoming widely available: mobile devices can monitor your heart rate, log your blood sugars, test your eyes, read your X-rays or scan your moles then despatch the results over the phone to your health practitioner.
The worldwide market for health and medical apps will reach $1.3 billion this year, having almost doubled since last year, with 247 million downloaded, according to the US market research firm research2guidance.
It estimates there are 13,000 such apps pitched at consumers and another 5000 aimed at the medical profession.
Doctors are using apps to get the latest information about drugs and treatments, says Ronald McCoy, a spokesman for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. ''It used to take a long time [to get new information], but now it gets updated overnight on your phone,'' he said. This ''puts doctors in a better situation to help their patients''.
Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton recently accessed ''15 smartphone apps to improve your practice'' from a US website. He said one called My Pain Diary might help in understanding and diagnosing patients' experiences of pain.
The British Department of Health was taken aback when a competition to find the best health apps yielded thousands of responses last year. The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, released a list of the top 500 apps to be recommended for doctors to ''prescribe'' for free as a way of increasing patient power and reducing doctor visits.
In the latest issue of Scientific American, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, wrote about participating in a trial that allowed him to pick up his iPhone, fire up an app to monitor his heart rate and rhythm, and then beam his ECG reading to a cardiologist halfway around the globe.
Mobile devices ''offer remarkably attractive low-cost, real-time ways to assess disease, movement, images, behaviour, social interactions, environmental toxins, metabolites and a host of other physiological variables'', Dr Collins wrote.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health said mobile phone applications were a valuable tool to promote public health messages.
The department has one providing information about illegal drugs, another one called Swap It encouraging a healthier diet and lifestyle and MyQuitBuddy to help quit smoking. But in the same way he has warned patients against self-diagnosis using internet research, Dr Hambleton urged people to discuss their apps with their doctors.
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