Mobile health apps are set to change the way individuals can look after their health, doctors can diagnose and monitor patients, and medical research can collect data and develop their research. As health apps go from ‘dumb’, i.e. use only aggregated or limited personal data to intelligent using personalised health records and genetic data, a revolution may be underway.

What is changing?

Mobile health apps are growing fast. How fast varies according to different reports: one forecasts the number of health app downloads in 2012 at 44 million; another at 600 million. Either way, the continued spread of smartphones and adaptors that either extend them or interact with them is driving that growth. There are currently about 9000 health apps on the iPhone, rising to about 13,000 in 2012.  Elsewhere, estimates put the total number of health apps at 17,000.

Self screening and lifestyle support are the most popular app areas at present. Among the iPhone apps, the most popular are heart related followed by diet and stress. New developments include being able to check your heart rate by putting your finger (or soon possibly your earlobe while on the phone) over the camera for a few minutes and it checks your heart via skin colour; monitoring the size and any changes in skin moles which may indicate the development of cancers by taking and storing photos; others track sleep patterns and vital signs, or blood sugar levels over time; one gives immediate access to your own and your family’s health records. Ford is researching incorporating blood sugar and pollen count levels monitoring apps into the information systems of their cars.

The Quantified Me movement has about 105,000 very active members and has already amassed a huge array of health and lifestyle data which at the individual, sub group e.g. by condition, and ‘total population’ level can provide significant benefits.

Why is this important?

In the US a growing number of people already spend more time ‘in apps’ than they do on the web; apps are becoming the preferred way to organise, streamline and enrich the content, of their lives. And about 14% of US smart phone users have downloaded health apps. At present, many users of health apps are the active pursuers of wellness and peak performance. Extending the appeal and active use of health apps, and not just aficionados, to those most at risk or the elderly will mean putting ease of use, low cost and real benefits high on the development agenda.

But apps are also helping the research community. The ability to collate, share and map any or all of the 1000s of single items of individual data means that research can monitor the location of disease hotspots, the migration of an outbreak, the side effects of different drugs and the lifestyle contexts. In some instances, already, it also means that lifestyle and symptom data prior to a medical trial can provide a vital baseline and comparison to analysis and understanding of the focus of the research.

In terms of health issues, lifestyle and chronic diseases increasingly dominate health care: one estimate predicts that by 2020 over 50% of the American population will either be diabetic, or pre-diabetic – with all the attendant costs and complications, and constraints on lives that that entails. Apps may provide an important mechanism to help people change their behaviours, to treat as well as prevent disease, contain costs and improve well being.

The adaptors will take sophisticated diagnosis into remote areas, especially in emerging market nations where health services are still constrained. Rapid diagnosis of malaria, for example, using the phone microscope, could help save many of the 1 million lives currently lost each year to the disease.

In future, health apps could help people take more responsibility for their health; help identify people at risk of conditions such as diabetes or strokes much earlier; use gaming, personal support and encouragement and behaviour economics to encourage target setting and achieving them on an ongoing basis; personalise medicine by individuals tracking their own symptoms and side effects and using the data to help their doctors choose the best treatments.

And these are all ‘dumb’ apps. Add in intelligent apps with greater access to personal medical records, genetic profiles and personal predisposition information stored on phones or in the cloud, and health apps could enable a revolution.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.