Healthcare Apps: Useful, Unreliable, or Gimmicky

One current development in Health IT aside from the areas of EHR implementation and the effort to adjust practice to meet and attest to Meaningful Use is through new applications designed to better the world of healthcare, from both the view of the provider and the patient. While the term “app” is frequently used to refer to applications running on smartphones or tablets such as the iPad, in this case, it can also refer to pieces of software, both web-based and otherwise, that can be used in concert with the Electronic Health Record. More recently, certain systems have been modified with the idea that these apps can be integrated with the EHR so that the provider need not go separate places to handle the needs that come up within the day to day routine of the practice. But a major question that comes up now is the value of these applications. Are they really all that useful, safe to use, and do they add real value to the world of healthcare?

There are many different healthcare applications that serve a wide variety of purposes. This encompasses items such as reference materials for providers, physician directories for patients and software that can be used to dictate quick chart notes into your phone.  The greatest advantage to these applications is the ability for the provider to think or work on a patients record while away from the computer. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns raised by providers about the new EHR-centric method of practice is how it takes away from face to face time with the patient. Unless the computer is in the room with the patient, they cannot quickly jot down a few notes, and for providers who are not adept at quickly addressing an issue on the computer, this can draw out an appointment. There are also apps that can aid patients who wish to know more about their own healthcare, helping them to quickly look up certain symptoms and find area providers that treat the symptoms they have. As EHR’s grow, more of these systems can be linked to this type of app, allowing integrated contact and scheduling efforts.

While the use of certain applications can benefit all stakeholders in the healthcare environment there are some critical questions. On April 30, Politico.com held a forum in which several experts in the field of health information technology, including ONC head Farzad Mostashari, discussed these and other issues. A major question that was raised was how reliable is the information provided in easily available healthcare apps? All medical devices that enter the marketplace require approval by the FDA before they can be sold or provided to patients. But is any piece of software a medical device?

As an example, in the past we have discussed apps such as one that helps people track calorie counts and exercise. But how are we to know that the calorie data provided by the application are accurate? If a provider uses an app as reference for how to prescribe a specific drug and the data is unreliable, any resulting errors are on him. This is why we count on government approval for other methods. But apps for phones or tablets are so easy to produce and distribute that it has become difficult for the government to keep track of them all.

A good app, used in concert with other available technologies, can be a powerful too, both to providers and patients in dealing with complex healthcare-related issues. But in deciding to use an app, one is trusting it to be reliable and safe to use. Without a massive, expensive, time consuming overhaul of the apps process, the government cannot possibly authorize everything that is out there. Therefore, the crowd sourcing method of reviewing applications, combined with the effort of healthcare organizations and EHR and practice management program developers to pick and promote the best and most reliable applications will have to suffice for the time being. The abilities of these technologies mean that there is a place out there for the good apps, but users and the government need to pay attention, because the difference between a great app and an unreliable one is often limited to the quality of information it provides.

 

Further Reading:

Politco “Tech Intersection: The Future of Health Care” 

Sample Apps

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