What do Swedish doctors think of health apps?
Mobile devices and apps have completely changed our lives and they are introducing us into a new digital era. As a consequence, a high level of digitalization is changing people’s approach to healthcare and health mobile applications (i.e. medical apps) are more and more available on app stores and are widely downloaded by consumers. Currently more than 50,000 health apps are available in the app stores which is 3 times the number of health apps available in 2010. A great number of these apps contain valuable medical information and references ranging from health promotion, nutrition, fitness, different types of medical calculators, chronic disease management tools etc. A great deal of apps are connected to different sensors which collect user data, monitor and analyze user’s health and improve the way people manage their health. This data can also be received by doctors to help them make better and more informed decisions for their patients. Studies concerning the benefits of apps for long-term chronic condition management have demonstrated that mobile health apps can be effective and beneficial for patients. They felt more secure that their illness was closely monitored and had a more effective participation in their own health management
However, downloading the right apps is now a challenge, as medical scientific societies and other accreditation bodies do not have enough resources or authority for assigning all the medical apps a quality rating. Hence, the high growth in the number of health apps is accompanied by various concerns such as misdiagnosis, scientific validity of the information contained in the app, privacy issues, inaccurate or outdated information etc. Considering this high emergence of health apps, doctors are looked upon as one of the main channels for introducing or recommending health apps to their patients and reducing the risks associated with using health apps. The question is whether physicians are willing to recommend any health apps to patients and how familiar are they with the types of health apps that are available out there.
A study in Sweden by the Karolinska Institutet was conducted precisely to answer these questions. The goal was to find out what attitude Swedish doctors have towards recommending health apps to their patients and what factors influence their opinion. Not only that almost everyone in Sweden owns a smartphone, but the health awareness and IT literacy in the country is very high making it very likely for the majority of people to have used some sort of health app. The results of the study suggest that 95% of the physicians surveyed know what health apps are, 81% are using them and majority of them have been asked by patients about them. However, most of the surveyed physicians are still reluctant to recommend them with only 37% currently recommending them, but 57% are considering to recommend them in the future. The physicians that have made health app recommendations have noticed great improvements in knowledge and behavior of some of their patients (e.g. carb counting for diabetes management). On the other hand, the main reasons that are preventing physicians in recommending health app include lack of integration with clinical data, lack of app surveillance and government regulations, and physician’s unawareness of existing apps for specific purposes. Some of them also believe that only health apps which are regulated as medical devices should be recommended and used by patients.
The physicians also confirmed that there is a growing need to develop rules, policies and guidelines regarding the use of mobile health applications in healthcare with a special consideration on
prescribing apps to patients as part of the treatment process. There is also a need for the standardization of mobile healthcare applications and integrating them with health information systems or patient monitoring systems for harnessing more value from the apps. The potential of apps in healthcare is being recognized to a greater extent, but like all new technologies, there needs to be an adoption cycle before prescribing apps becomes an integrated part of the healthcare practice. This is bound to occur in the near future, but more investments in research are necessary and additional evidence such as randomized controlled trials of health apps showing favorable outcomes is needed for app prescription to become a regular part of the healthcare delivery process.