Health apps ready to collect your vital signs

Health apps ready to collect your vital signs

Mobile apps that sync with wearable devices and smartphones aim to make it easier to manage healthcare

Shifting healthcare policies, new treatment options, aging demographics and soaring inflation all drive an innovation in healthcare that's focused on improving consumers' health and lowering the cost to manage chronic conditions, says Julie Ask, Forrester vice president and principal analyst.

Healthcare providers and consumers are particularly invested in these new mobile technologies, which change the traditional clinical environment by connecting patients with their healthcare providers in a more personal and effective way. Mobile phones play a central role, Ask says, as do wristbands to smart patches.

[ Feature: 12 top fitness and health apps ]

"Firms are using mobile technologies to collect new kinds of data about consumers, crunch it in the cloud, and then employ a mix of engagement tactics on mobile devices to spur consumers into action and create mobile moments," she says.

Health apps following in footsteps of fitness trackers

Wearable devices such as FitBit, Jawbone and Samsung Gear Fit came to market first. Now, emerging mobile applications most of which synch with the most popular wearable devices and smartphone aim to make it easier and more convenient to manage healthcare. Recent app releases from Samsung, WebMD, Apple and Google are all worth a look.

[ Analysis: Wearable devices with health IT functions poised to disrupt medicine ]

Samsung S Health, an integrated platform preloaded on the Galaxy S5 smartphone, enables nutrition, fitness and wellness tracking, says Samsung's Carrie Gaffney. Using the phone's built-in heart rate monitor and a sensor under the rear-facing camera, for example, you can track your heart rate before and after exercise.

Other S Health features include a walking mate for counting steps, a food tracker for counting calories and an exercise mate for walking, running, cycling and hiking. S Heath app syncs with Gear Fit and other fitness gadgets.

WebMD Healthy Target, originally designed for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypoglycemia or obesity, has become increasingly popular for anyone who wants to manage their weight and blood sugar, track physical activity or just sleep and feel better. Users can set personal goals (to easy, medium or hard levels), adjust as needed and track progress.

David Ziegler, WebMD's director of mobile product management, says the site "sees an opportunity to help consumers store, access and manage their health information in a secure environment." The program then displays relevant physician-approved content and offers "actionable insights," he says.

"This gives users a deeper understanding of their progress and, ultimately, helps them attain their goals of living a healthier life."

In addition to Symptom Checker and First Aid Essentials, the iPhone app offers a daily lifestyle magazine of healthy living tips and recipes feedback on a user's activity log, and a weekly progress report. It can also find doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies based on a user's location. Finally, Healthy Target syncs with a number of wearable devices, including Fitbit and Jawbone, as well as glucometers and wireless scales.

Apple Health displays personal biometric data heart rate, calories consumed and burned, blood sugar and cholesterol from the fitness apps that actually collect the data and from devices such as JawBone and the iBGStar Blood Glucose Meter.

The purpose is to provide a single app that collates all the data in an easy-to-read dashboard. These devices and apps have connected to the iPhone for quite some time, but Apple Health compiles it in one convenient source.

[ News: Apple nails health timing as fitness app usage soars ]

In addition, the HealthKit SDK lets independent programmers develop additional apps that will integrate with Apple Health. Users can share information with doctors and other healthcare professionals (per person or establishment) or turn off sharing completely.

Most recently, Google announced the Google Fit platform at the Google I/O conference. This open platform for the Web, smartphones and Android Wear, due for release this fall, provides developers a single set of APIs to access and store fitness data from apps and sensors.

For users, Google Fit eliminates the complexity of accessing multiple sources of information, providing a unified view of fitness activity and overall health. Google's partners include Nike, Adidas, Basis, Polar, Withings, Intel, LG and HTC.

Google's health apps edge is twofold. First, the Android smartphone platform market share is 52 percent, according to comScore, compared to 42 percent for Apple. Second, Google says it plans to add many more devices to its existing line of Android Wear smartwatches.

Too much health data a prescription for trouble?

Gartner research director Anurag Gupta says the interface with the mobile device represents a critical component of fitness and patient monitoring that is, how medical devices and wearables send and receive data or instructions from multiple sources and then, to maintain data quality, provide some uniformity to that data.

In addition, as companies collect vast amounts of user-generated data, there will be multiple opportunities to monetise that data by, say, targeting shoe advertisements for a fanatic runner or backpacks for a devoted hiker. Payers and pharmaceutical firms will be keenly interested in this data, too.

[ Features: Data analytics use cases for healthcare IT, Part 1 and Part 2 ]

Feeding data from wearable data into electronic health record (EHR) systems in order to create a complete, holistic patient profile above and beyond existing hospital or ambulatory patient records will be a mammoth task, Gupta says.

The regulatory framework connected to the patient data presents another major challenge, he adds. There are strict rules associated with the use of health data, which regulations classify as protected health information.

What's more, what an application does, and how its data is used and interpreted, further affects its classification. Apps used by physicians to diagnose or treat a disease, for example, are subject to more regulatory scrutiny than those used by patients to manage that disease, Gupta says.

The Food and Drug Administration "will exercise enforcement discretion" when it comes to medical software and device regulations, he says. "The FDA has taken a tailored approach, which supports the benefits of technology without stifling innovation and creativity."

However, too much data could stifle physician productivity, writes Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, in The New York Times.

Flooding offices with "every glucose value of every patient, or each patient's daily weight, or every blood pressure measurement" information that new health apps encourage patients to collect and share will bury physicians in "information overload," Carroll says. What's more, individual data points usually don't matter, but when they do, "physicians might worry about being held liable for missing an abnormal reading."

Carroll suggests building systems that automatically monitor patient data for both good and bad outcomes and notify physicians or clinical staff if something goes wrong. But doctors won't invest their time or money in such systems until a critical number of patients demands it, Carroll says and it will create additional work for offices and hospitals to boot.

Until the medical industry sees these types of data monitoring systems, patients will be hard pressed to find healthcare organisations that use the large amounts of data that medical and fitness apps collect. If that's the case, the efforts of Samsung, WebMD, Apple and Google may fall flat.

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