People are turning to health apps at a heart-stopping pace, downloading apps that do everything from diagnosing a concussion to playing music in sync with a runner’s steps. The market for mobile health technology, or “mHealth” apps, is projected to reach $28.3 billion in global market value in 2018 and $102.3 billion by 2023. Tech watchers and analysts say the past decade has seen an explosion in their use. The IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science reports that 318,000 mHealth apps are now available, nearly double the number available in 2015.
The world of digital medicine is vast, spanning everything from apps to genomic testing to electronic medical records. It’s a hot area of investment. According to the research firm Rock Health, some $5.8 billion in venture capital poured into digital health companies in 2017 – a record high. But the largest portion of that – $1.6 billion – went to tech firms that deliver consumer health information.
As technology has created – and enabled – an increasingly health-empowered consumer, how are business and health care organizations responding? The booming popularity of mHealth apps has shown that, with global health care costs rising, the answer to improving health and decreasing costs might lie with the patients themselves.
MHealth apps offer both benefits and risks to users. With the growing popularity of such technology, top-of-mind topics for consumers and organizations alike include reliability of information, privacy concerns and the potential perks of greater involvement in and engagement with personal health.
MHealth: Become Your Own Doctor?
Some analysts see personal mHealth tech as a way to make health care more accessible and convenient for consumers. With long waits for doctor’s appointments, escalating health care costs, and sometimes complex insurance policies, a phone or wristwatch that can check your blood pressure and track calories might suddenly seem like your best friend.
And modern health apps go far beyond the step trackers of just a few years ago. With the help of plug-in devices, smartphones and wearables, such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit, can be adapted to provide feedback on blood glucose levels, blood pressure and even heart arrhythmias.
Other apps venture into even more daring diagnostic territory. One claims to detect concussion by scanning the user’s pupils via a smartphone camera. Others analyze photos of moles and skin lesions with the intent of detecting melanoma.
These claims have alarmed some health care providers. Not all health apps are backed by accepted medical research, physicians warn, adding that gadgets are no substitute for thorough checkups with a personal physician.
Analysts note that there are many untested mHealth apps on the market, and some may be unreliable or even dangerous. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in December 2017 that mHealth apps intended only to help users maintain or encourage healthy lifestyles, such as step counters and calorie trackers, generally fall outside its regulatory scope.
Still, analysts say consumers are likely to keep on plugging into health apps for the foreseeable future. Therefore, companies that engage with this software – such as health care organizations or employers offering health apps within their benefits packages – should be aware of both its strengths and dangers.
Your Health Data: The Risks of Going Into the Cloud
For health care providers and patients alike, mHealth apps present a risk that private health information could fall into the wrong hands. Health tracking apps are made to store everything from cholesterol levels to where and how often you go running. Some are made to transmit that data directly into electronic medical records, meaning there are multiple potential entry points for a hacker.
Nearly 50 percent of health care providers said they had privacy and security concerns when using third-party health apps. Stolen health information can sell for $10 per patient on the black market, about 10 to 20 times the value of a credit card number. In addition to security issues, other concerns included credibility, potential ongoing maintenance, integration and data aggregation, and data ownership.
Telemedicine apps, which allow for a remote video consultation between provider and patient, can pose similar privacy risks. In 2017, 31 percent of health care organizations offered video-based telemedicine services, according to HIMSS Analytics. The service has been hailed as a solution to physician shortages, long waits and lack of access in rural areas. But it presents another access point to hackers.
In the age of mobile health apps, analysts suggest that health care organizations take steps to protect patient data, such as instituting an annual HIPAA security risk analysis, encrypting patient health information and conducting vulnerability analyses and penetration testing.
In Europe, the growth of mHealth apps inspired the European Commission to adopt stringent new laws for protecting consumers’ private information in 2016. This new legal framework, the General Data Protection Regulation, becomes effective in May 2018 for EU member states.
Beyond privacy concerns, there are technical challenges with mHealth apps. In both the U.S. and Europe, some health care providers have been reluctant to update legacy IT systems. Complicating matters is the sheer abundance of apps, electronic medical records and other types of software that don’t always interface well with each other.
There are also concerns about the accuracy of mHealth apps, especially diagnostic ones. The FDA confirmed in December that it will regulate some health apps as medical devices, such as those that analyze medical images, specimens like blood or saliva, or body patterns such as heart rhythms – a move that was applauded by health care professionals.
Plugged-in Millennials: How Generations Are Embracing mHealth Apps
Even with privacy and cyber breach concerns, mHealth apps carry opportunity. One of their biggest benefits might be encouraging a greater sense of involvement in personal health, especially among tech-friendly millennials. A recent study found that health tech that offers in-the-moment information – such as reminders about a doctor’s appointment or blood sugar checks – is especially popular. Some 72 percent of millennials said they would opt in to in-the-moment information, along with 66 percent of Generation X and 53 percent of baby boomers.
MHealth apps can also promote a better relationship with your doctor. For example, one dermatology app answers questions about skin issues and also refers users to a professional dermatologist, upon request.
Consumer Health Apps: The Benefits for Employers
The potential also exists for health technology to lower health care costs, especially apps used under a doctor’s supervision. One app, for example, uses acoustic detection technology to gauge whether a patient is using an asthma inhaler correctly. Apps like these could reduce acute-care episodes and emergency room visits and help keep patients healthier.
Companies also could use aggregate mHealth data, such as blood pressure rates, stress rates and statistics on the return on investment of interventions, to launch wellness programs better tailored to their employees. Such information can move companies beyond simply lowering health insurance premiums to helping employees address their own health care issues, says Dora Horjus, Managing Director of Corporate Wellness and Health and Benefits, Aon Netherlands.
“We’re seeing companies evolve in how they are looking at the data technology is providing,” she says. “If you discover health-related and absenteeism risks earlier, you can begin to prevent them, which is a win/win situation. It improves the health of employees and it improves the performance of organizations.”
Analyzing employees’ choices of mHealth apps and other health technology also can allow organizations to better understand the types of benefits employees value – including their perceived value – says Tim Nimmer, Global Chief Actuary, Aon. “The opportunity to take data and help business leaders make decisions based on insightful analysis can lead to not only better health outcomes for employee populations but also decreased costs for the organization,” he says. This can be particularly cost-effective, he explains, when organizations begin to evaluate the perceived value of a benefit related to cost. “Overall health costs can decrease if an organization can prioritize benefits that are better perceived by their workforce and also cost the company less.”
A Medical Perspective on Evaluating mHealth Apps
For now, mHealth apps have broadly been used to liven up workouts and present interesting glimpses into personal health metrics while giving doctors and health researchers potentially valuable data to track. These apps may also overlap a growing interest in precision medicine, a more customized approach to health care driven by individual patient data. With today’s pricier health insurance premiums and high-deductible health plans, mHealth apps may at least help consumers feel they’re getting a certain level of concierge care for their health care bucks.
Wearing Your Data On Your Sleeve: The Promises And Pitfalls Of Wearables – Aon, January 25, 2018
Will Technology In Healthcare Make The Rich Healthier And The Poor Sicker? – Forbes, January 25, 2018
Patient Data Integration Pushing Forward, New Apps Driving Interoperability – Health Tech Zone, March 23, 2018
Privacy Experts Alarmed As Amazon Moves Into The Health Care Industry – Washington Post, January 30, 2018
I Tried Apple’s Improved Health App. Here’s What I Found – USA Today, January 26, 2018