Mobile Health Apps and Technology

Mobile health devices and applications have the potential to become powerful health tools. Not only have advancements allowed smartphones to be used as diagnostic devices (think the inclusion of sleep tracking functionality), but the simple fact that so many of us have gadgets at the ready helps make health care more accessible. More than 100,000 health apps are currently available for download, and this number is expected to grow exponentially as technology and health care continue to develop side by side.

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What Can Mobile Health Technology Do?

Mobile devices can be used to track, record, and connect data, as well as guide many aspects of health care. Smartphones are being used as medical devices in prenatal care, cancer care, ophthalmology, and infectiology, to name just a few examples. Other mobile devices, such as tablets, wearable sensors, and portable biomedical systems are increasingly used not just by patients, but by health professionals as well. The ubiquity of mobile health technology is so pervasive that one could argue that mobile health is more impactful than health technology that is immobile. This is especially true in areas that are underserved due to logistical considerations.

For a person with a chronic disease, perpetual health monitoring can mean the difference between remission and experiencing symptoms that only get worse. Mobile health offers the advantage of around-the-clock monitoring that once was only accessible to those privileged enough to afford constant care.

Mobile Health and the Management of Chronic Conditions

The proliferation of mobile health means there are now hundreds of thousands of apps and wearables to help address concerns regarding our health, fitness, and various treatments. These apps and devices help us log our activity, dispense advice, and, in some cases, improve our performance. They also provide reminders and nudges to keep us on track. From smartphone push alerts to wearables that provide sensory notifications, mobile health provides an inexpensive and scalable way for us to be better about the self-management of our wellbeing.

Health technology is often mentioned in relation to managing different chronic conditions. For instance, there are many diabetes apps now available on the market, targeting the management of one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in the world. However, many of these apps are not evidence-based and have not been rigorously tested, making their application questionable or even dangerous. This is a pending issue for many of the applications designed to monitor different health conditions.

Mobile health also often cuts out the human element of health care. In the example of diabetes, many experts agree that self-management is key in clinical treatments. However, some individuals with diabetes don’t perform their necessary daily checks. Routine self-care is often negatively impacted by the lack of personalized approach, insufficient self-knowledge about the importance of behavioral change, and proper blood glucose control.

Therefore, it has been proposed that patients with type 2 diabetes (those not treated with insulin) could benefit from a well-designed app that would target some of the factors that patients can change. These factors include things like dietary intake, physical activity, and weight management. This, coupled with self-monitoring of blood glucose, could lead to better clinical outcomes and remove the need for third-party involvement.

Some other (high) risk behaviors have also been targeted using various digital tools and mobile health applications. For instance, apps have been developed specifically for HIV prevention, treatment, and care. As numerous research teams work to develop evidence-based health applications, it can be expected that more reliable digital health tools for self-monitoring and behavioral change will soon be available to us. Also, the process of guiding and designing mobile health and biomedical apps is likely to become more rigorous and user-centered.

Mobile Technology as a Diagnostic Tool

Mobile health reaches far beyond different health apps and educational tools. Smartphones have now been turned into point-of-care diagnostic tools. The ultrasound that works on smartphones has already been approved by the FDA.

Another important area of mobile health includes testing for certain diseases and infections. This can enable early detection of different chronic conditions, including some forms of cancer.

As smartphones and digital devices become more prevalent, their use also facilitates a more patient-centered approach. The experience of mobile digital health technology is improving patient care by introducing better ways of monitoring and diagnosing conditions, making care more timely and holistic.

How Doctors Use Mobile Technology

Not only patients but clinicians, too, are recognizing the perks and benefits of mobile health technology. These tools can assist in collecting more accurate clinical history, recording objective patient parameters, supporting the decision-making process, aiding in communication with patients, educating patients, and monitoring adherence to treatment. We are now only a button push away from connecting with our doctors, and those that care for us can use these tools to better manage the way they communicate with us.

New ways smartphones can be used to augment care are emerging all the time. For instance, the use of electronic clinical diaries brings new opportunities for monitoring patients with asthma and hypertension. Smartphones are becoming invaluable clinical companions for those of us who suffer from allergies and are helping clinicians diagnose and manage allergy treatment. Pollen-induced allergic rhinitis is a condition that can be difficult to diagnose due to different factors that need to be considered. Now, scientists are exploring novel ways of diagnosing this condition using non-invasive methods. It appears that smartphones could also play an important role in this evolution.

Another important advantage of mobile health technology is cost reduction. Commonly used smartphones can be adapted to include health components at a fraction of the price of more traditional devices. A few dollars can now suffice to perform a medical test using a smartphone, which also makes different specialized procedures available to wider populations. Increased availability of medical procedures, combined with free or inexpensive phone apps, is also contributing to closing the digital and health divide.

Limitations of Mobile Devices Used for Health

It is important to again stress that many mobile applications and devices currently lack the scientific rigor required to make them reliable and viable medical tools. Rapid technological advancements often predate governmental regulations. Unfortunately, clinical practice recommendations regarding the use of technology lag even further behind.

This raises some urgent questions about the safety of popular mobile devices. It also suggests the need for careful monitoring of new digital inventions to assess their practical value, reliability, and suitability. As mobile health increases its presence in the healthcare arena, we need to be aware of false promises. This includes recognizing some of the limitations of modern technology. Mobile health technology also faces some of the same issues of privacy and data ownership as other digital health innovation.

Trends in Mobile Health

Mobile applications have great potential, yet there is still plenty of room for improvement to fully maximize their potential benefit. With the increasing use of digital health apps, it has become essential to improve the design processes, so applications can be easy to use while still having the desired effect on the user.

Many digital health developers have chosen Apple’s iOS devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad) as the target device of choice. The number of health-related apps in the Apple Store continues to rapidly increase. Tracking tools are among the most popular health apps due to their portability and 24/7 accessibility. Medical information references and educational tools also remain very popular.

Developers are constantly working on improving information presentation, so end-users can understand and use the data better. Two- and three-dimensional visualization of data is particularly attractive to users who prefer new, innovative approaches. Mobile health developers are now often letting us be part of the application development process. Our feedback and engagement ensure that these tools meet our needs, and are useful and easy to use.

Integrating data is a challenge for all digital health technology. Many mobile health devices from past years were not built with transmitting data in mind. This is something that now needs to be improved if the utility of these devices to be fully recognized.

Progress is being made in transferring real-time data from non-connected devices to health IT systems. This allows for data that patients collect during self-monitoring with antiquated devices to be synchronized with more modern digital health platforms. The readings from non-connected devices can be captured by smartphones and then forwarded to healthcare providers. More work in the area of interoperability is expected in order to fill existing gaps and create better operability.

Fortunately, tracking and monitoring health has become increasingly more engaging and effective. Mobile health represents a crucial piece of the digital health narrative and is constantly evolving to ensure critical issues are being addressed. In emerging medical models, patients’ interests should be considered a top priority. We are continuing to become more engaged partners in our own health care, and mobile health is providing the needed tools to ensure this trend continues.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Michael Rucker, PhD, MBA
Michael Rucker, PhD, MBA, is the vice president of technology for Active Wellness.