Little is known about the majority of healthcare apps and their functionalities. However, more and more of these apps are continually being pushed out into the Apple and Android stores. According to a study conducted by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, October 2013 Patient Apps for Improved Healthcare From Novelty to Mainstream, Murray Aitken, executive director at IMS, and his colleagues found a total of 43,689 apps under the category of “Healthcare and Fitness” or “Medical” available for download from the Apple App Store as of June 2013. From these apps, more than 50% achieved less than 500 downloads. Conversely, 5 of these apps account for 15% of all downloads. The reason for the skewed results varies but commonly fall under these four explanations as the authors state:
- Despite the large number of healthcare apps developed, the majority have only simple functionality; however mobile apps can be used for remote monitoring providing potential for extra data collection to aid healthcare management
- Almost 50% of healthcare apps available to consumers can be downloaded for free and are produced by a variety of types of developer
- Apps are available across the full spectrum of the patient journey, although healthy living apps dominate the space, whereas self-diagnosis, filling prescriptions and medication compliance have the lowest numbers of apps developed to date
- Some apps cover the full patient journey and are therapy area specific or demographic specific but there are still significant areas of unmet need to be filled
After a thorough examination of the content of each app, 20,007 apps were excluded from further analysis as they were deemed by the authors as “not truly related to healthcare (e.g. salons, apps with gimmicks),” leaving 23,682 apps as “genuine healthcare apps.” Of these 23,682 apps, 16,275 apps (or 2/3) were categorized as consumer/patient oriented and 7,407 apps (or 1/3) as HCP oriented. The authors, then, conducted a further assessment on app functionality of healthcare apps which was based on whether or not the apps could do the following:
- Inform: Provide information in a variety of formats (text, photo, video)
- Instruct: Provide instructions to the user
- Record: Capture user entered data
- Display: Graphically display user entered data/output user entered data
- Guide: Provide guidance based on user entered information, and may further offer a diagnosis, or recommend a consultation with a physician/a course of treatment
- Remind/Alert: Provide reminders to the user
- Communicate: Provide communication with HCP/patients and/or provide links to social networks
From this assessment, the study found that 10,840 apps have the feature to inform, 5,823 could instruct, 5,095 could record, and 1,357 have the remind/alert function. The data figure below shows a more detailed result with both an assessment on individual functionality as well as multi-functionality.
As shown, with the majority of the healthcare apps having limited and simple functionality, there’s bound to be less downloads and interaction with these apps. Facing a what-seems-to-be an unending array of healthcare apps to choose from and little to no guidance on quality or support from physicians, consumers will base their engagement with healthcare apps based on high review numbers and ratings which may not necessarily meet their needs. So what can be done to improve consumer engagement in healthcare apps and thus healthcare, itself?
A solution the authors have proposed is to fully integrate the healthcare apps into a component of healthcare management. To do so, standard rules and regulations must be applied as well as systematically using these apps in healthcare. Four key steps mentioned in the study to progress through this process are “recognition by payers and providers of the role that apps can play in healthcare; security and privacy guidelines and assurances being put in place between providers, patients and app developers; systematic curation and evaluation of apps that can provide both physicians and patients with useful summarized content about apps that can aid decision-making regarding their appropriate use; and integration of apps with other aspects of patient care.” Underpinning all of this will be the evidence-based trials and values derived from every healthcare apps testing and usage overseen by the FDA.
The actualization of these preconditions will hasten the maturity of apps into the mainstream of healthcare.