People never knew so much about the state of their own health, thanks to an exploding market for health apps that measure everything from heartbeats to steps to the quality of sleep.
Theoretically they could be helping people to live healthier lives – and lift the burden on doctors. If people are better informed about their health, the argument goes, they’ll get healthier. Right?
Maybe. Much, much more data is available. But patients and doctors are scratching their heads and working out what to do with all the information.
Thanks to a clutch of sensors, smartphones can monitor a wearer’s pulse rate, blood sugar, weight and more.
People like being able to document their lives digitally. Instead of going to the doctor twice a year, they can analyze their health.
“All the information health apps generate are creating new norm values so we can distinguish better between when we’re sick or well,” said Dr. Markus Müschenich, a pediatrician and chairman of the German federal association for Internet medicine.
The apps will change health care systems and some fear they may undermine the authority of doctors. But Dr. Franz-Joseph Bartmann, who is on the board of the German Medical Association and is a specialist in telematics, does not fear the new technology.
“I don’t want to be a party pooper but if you measure a lot, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. If people enjoy measuring then they should go ahead, but they shouldn’t take it too seriously.”
“It is patients who are actively driving Internet medicine. And an active patient is a healthy patient. ”
“We have a real opportunity to use these in medicine,“ Dr. Müschenich said. He created an app to help children train their vision.
The apps and appliances allow people to measure what’s happening in their bodies. Apple wants to set up a central place to save these vital statistics. Its future phones will feature a health app that would evaluate all the data from calorie intake to sleep and weight. Users can also fill out details like their blood type and other data for emergencies.
Samsung is also working on a health care ecosystem.
The phones say a lot about their users. The data collected is huge, while people in Germany are increasingly concerned about data privacy. Apple has underlined that it will not sell users’ health data. But users worry what could happen to their personal information.
While a study found that up to 70 percent of Germans would consider using health apps to help them lead a healthier lifestyle, other voices call for caution. They fear that what is now voluntary may someday be a requirement.
Could health insurance cost more for people who don’t use apps for their health? German health insurance firms are already looking at the potential of apps, but again users worry about how this data will be used – and by whom.
Physician response to this trend has been mixed.
“It is patients who are actively driving Internet medicine. And an active patient is a healthy patient,” said Dr. Müschenich. “Many people die each year from not having enough information.”
“Of course it’s annoying when a patient comes who is actually asking for advice but thinks they know more about a particular illness than the doctor does,” said Dr. Bartmann.
“Also, all the knowledge we have to accumulate during long years at medical school is now being eroded by people all having new possibilities to gain information,” he said. “But I think most doctors have learned how to deal with this.”
Nonetheless doctors are not yet trained to deal with this new age of app medicine. They are also legally prevented from diagnosing people remotely, although legally this is a grey area. “This law dates back to the time of the dial phone,” Dr. Müschenich said.
For now, what is hard for patients is the unprecedented flood of information; and as yet there is no quality control for the apps. “We had hoped we would be able to do that evaluation ourselves, but the number of apps has grown enormously,” said Dr. Bartmann.
“The start-ups I advise are the most patient-oriented people around,” said Dr. Müsenich.
The German Medical Association recommends voluntary self-certification for app developers by the certification authority TÜV Rheinland. The health ministry of North Rhine-Westphalia is supporting the platform AppCheck.
One thing is certain: apps won’t replace doctors any time soon. They are eroding the medical professions’ monopoly on information, but doctors can help patients interpret the flood of data they accumulate.