Doctors of my generation have experienced dramatic changes in the way we access the information we need to care for patients. As a medical student 15 years ago, my "peripheral brain" consisted of fat textbooks sitting on office bookshelves or smaller, spiral-bound references stuffed into the bulging pockets of my lab coat. As a doctor-in-training, I replaced those bulky references with programs loaded onto PDAs. Today, smartphone apps allow health professionals at all levels to access the most up-to-date medical resources such as drug references, disease-risk calculators, and clinical guidelines—anytime, anywhere.
Apps have several advantages over traditional medical texts. First, the information is always current, whereas many textbooks are already dated by the time they hit shelves. If I have a question, I can look up the answer on my smartphone without leaving my patient’s side. And unlike textbook chapters, many medical apps have interactive features that help doctors choose appropriate screening tests for patients, recognize when immunizations are due, or calculate a patient’s risk of developing heart problems. Lastly, apps can enable remote monitoring of high-risk patients and reduce the need for office visits. In a small study published in PLoS ONE, for example, researchers found that patients hospitalized for heart vessel blockages were able to complete "supervised" rehabilitation exercise sessions in their homes with a portable heart monitor and GPS receiver that transmitted real-time data to doctors via smartphone.
But smartphone apps also have downsides—despite their enormous potential to improve the quality and convenience of healthcare. While textbooks undergo rigorous review by experts, apps vary in quality and don't have to be vetted for accuracy or safety. That point was driven home to me recently when a colleague shared a nifty app she’d downloaded that acted as a mobile electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor: Just place your finger tip on the smartphone's camera, and your heart rate and electrical rhythm appear on screen. Visions of chucking our office's bulky and temperamental ECG machine briefly danced in my head—until I tried the app out and found the readings to be completely wrong.
Concerns about app quality prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to propose in July that certain interactive medical apps be required to get agency approval before being distributed or sold, similar to how new drugs and devices are evaluated for effectiveness before being allowed on the market. Proponents of regulating medical apps argue that guidelines are needed to protect patients from apps that provide misleading or potentially harmful data. However, others worry that regulation may stifle the production of innovative apps—often developed by individual researchers on shoestring budgets—that could potentially be useful in patient care. Also, although the FDA doesn't intend to regulate apps that simply allow doctors to read digital versions of print publications, it isn't clear exactly how "interactive" an app needs to be to qualify for regulatory review.
How might the recent explosion of medical apps affect your future healthcare experiences? According to a recent article published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, more than 80 percent of doctors will own smartphones by 2012. So it's likely that your doctor already uses one or more popular medical apps to double-check drug doses or to read summaries of the latest medical research. If your doctor is tech savvy, he or she may also be storing your health information in one of several electronic medical record systems accessible via smartphone. Given the uneven performance of medical apps to date, it’s best to view them with caution, as you would any new medical device. My advice: Ask your doctor which apps she uses regularly and make sure you’re comfortable with their quality and their ability to protect your personal data. That way, you can feel reasonably assured that apps will be an asset, rather than a hindrance, to reaching your health goals.