Richard Brady, a surgeon and founder of the ResearchActive.com website, gives his views on the currently rather patchy medical app ecosystem and highlights what is needed to make this technology more attractive for both doctors and patients. He will be giving a keynote presentation on the subject at the Health 2.0 Europe conference taking place on 18-20 May in Barcelona, an event which L’Atelier is partnering.
L’Atelier: What’s your view of mobile medical apps in general?
Richard Brady: At the present time there are more than 150,000 medical apps available on the market, but recent studies have shown that over half of them have been downloaded less than 500 times. Medical apps are widely available, but they’re used far less than we would like to think. Moreover, there are clearly a lot of bad medical apps – badly put together, dangerous, inaccurate, or developed with the sole intention of making a profit, without any prior testing or exact knowledge of the subject. These apps are proliferating but they’re still struggling to make an impression in what is a very competitive market.
2015 is proving a tough year, but it’s a crucial year as regards the development of the medical app ecosystem. Overall I think there’s insufficient information and a lack of trust among both the general public and doctors as regards the real potential of medical apps. This is mainly due to a lack of reliable reputable sites from which quality medical apps can be downloaded, and to unhelpful categorisation by app stores, which tend to mix apps in the ‘lifestyle and fitness’ category together with medical apps. What’s more, the consumer isn’t helped by the absence of a recognisable labelling system to signal to the consumer that the app is based on scientific evidence and has been tested by medical professionals.
This situation has led to growing scepticism towards medical apps among patients and doctors, which has now superseded the general enthusiasm felt by these same people for the benefits of app technology.
Which is the area most likely to see an expansion of medical apps, in your view?
The potential of medical apps is almost limitless. In future, medical apps will reach their pinnacle in providing a bridge between traditional approaches and technology. For example, switching over from paper medical records to efficient universal use of electronic medical records, which could aggregate information coming from a patient’s wearable device with the traditional data on his/her health status could really give healthcare professionals a much wider picture.
The use of medical apps to store and/or analyse massive quantities of data on populations – on their health and lifestyles – opens the way to countless possibilities. For example, combining big data on patients with the analytical capacity provided by systems such as IBM Watson could provide a sick person with a diagnosis and suggest bespoke treatment. This could well be the shape of the next generation treatment guidance system, especially useful for such conditions as cancers.
Which medical apps in particular are likely to be the ‘hits’ of 2015?
The most successful apps will certainly be ones which radically change the way people are treated when they don’t really need a stay in hospital. Reducing the expense and inconvenience associated with having to go to hospital, and consequently lowering costs means that these will be the apps that are likely to stand out from the crowd.
A similar idea… there’s an enormous number of apps in the mental health category which have recently been listed in the new British National Health Service library, such as the Big White Wall app. This is a site which allows patients to talk anonymously about their mental health problems and helps to get them into therapy.
In terms of time savings, apps that can give a patient an immediate medical opinion without having to go to a doctor’s surgery or a hospital are likely to be very popular, as they save the patient the journey plus any expense.
Do you think people are ready to use medical apps as part of their daily routine?
As I’ve mentioned before, 2015 will be a crucial year for the development of medical apps. I believe that if we can educate patients on this subject they’ll learn to trust medical apps and know more about how to use them, which will lead to more widespread use of apps.
Unfortunately, the increasing number of negative experiences with poor quality medical apps, which are relayed through the media, plus the difficulty of finding an appropriate medical app for your condition – these two factors are holding back both patients and healthcare professionals from building the necessary trust, and the consequence is that people are not interested in using them.
Where do medical practitioners stand on this one?
As far as physicians are concerned, it would be possible to get them more involved by increasing the information and training we give them and also by getting them directly engaged in the design, testing and production of apps.
We’re suffering from a serious lack of reliable signals that an app is safe, tested and effective. The establishment of a trusted, peer-reviewed repository for apps, with clarity around the origin, testing and effect of those apps would provide a lot of reassurance.
The main issue is however a lack of evidence that the apps actually work. We have to date been rather poor at producing high quality research to confirm the clinical effectiveness of mobile medical apps. We need to prove that patients are compliant with apps and highlight the benefits they can provide.
I think the producers, developers, app stores and physicians need to get together in order to make this technology more attractive, both for clinicians and patients to engage with.