The explosive growth of mobile applications (apps) for everything from news to shopping is also improving the way many people manage their health. But what at first glance might seem like niche data — tracking a calorie here and a short jog there — is actually the front line of the digital revolution in healthcare.
GE, in partnership with the tech group MedHelp, has made available a group of free apps that can not only assist users in better understanding their own health and habits — they can help improve the medical care these users receive. The apps themselves are simple to use and all of them revolve around tracking yourself throughout the day — what you eat, how you’re sleeping, what your mood is, how you’re pregnancy is progressing, and how you feel in general. The apps keep a log of all the information you enter, allowing you to see patterns. But the information you store can also be shared with your doctor, who can use it to provide you better, more tailored care.
Healthcare experts say that breakdowns in care often occur due to a lack of accurate information. For example, an overweight patient with hypertension and diabetes has 15, maybe 20 minutes with his doctor, who asks, “How’s your diet?” The patient, if he or she is like most people, will usually answer something like, “It’s fine” — which is just one of the many patient-doctor disconnects revealed in a recent GE survey.
But if that patient had been using an app like My Diet Diary, the doctor can review the app contents and include them in the patient’s medical record, providing a full picture of everything that patient had eaten for as long as he or she had been using the app. It’s far more useful for evaluating a patient’s possible treatment needs than, “My diet’s OK, doc.” Similarly, for patients seeking help for mood disorders or depression, a detailed log of the patient’s moods throughout the day can be invaluable to a doctor managing a patient’s treatment.
“There’s a lot of interest in these apps, and it’s driven by changes in healthcare overall,” says John de Souza, President and CEO of MedHelp. “Doctors are seeing more and more people enter the medical system, and healthcare costs are rising, meaning the amount of time you get with the doctor gets reduced. So more of the burden of preparing for your visit gets pushed back on the patient. When you go to the doctor now, you need to be sure you’re well prepared.”
Even if a patient uses one of these apps for a short period of time — say, two weeks — it can be very helpful, says De Souza. “Even a short usage gives you a great baseline that’s exceedingly useful. You could show your diet diary to a nutritionist or doctor, who can identify trends that are very powerful.”
Of course, also crucial to their usefulness is the fact that these apps can all be used in conjunction with each other, to complement and deepen the effectiveness of each. For example, if you’re using My Diet Diary and you become pregnant, you can loop in the I’m Expecting app to chart both your eating habits and your health during each trimester. And the programmers see the next generation of these apps not simply being reviewed by a doctor, or forming a baseline for you to refer to, but one day plugging into your electronic medical record, which could allow even more use of what may seem like just “everyday” data.
(De Souza, who is also a member of the Advisory Board for GE’s healthymagination initiative, wrote an essay in the recently issued healthymagination Annual Report (page 38) in which he explains how technologies are helping to reduce the need for hospital visits through better preventive care.)
Regarding apps and the future, he adds: “GE has great expertise working with doctors, hospitals, and new technology like electronic medical records. They have also dealt with consumers in many different ways. Most of all, they know how to deal with very large amounts of data — what they do with jet engines is amazing, they take health records of their engines, plug it in, and tie it back in to maintenance the engine. We want to do the same thing with humans, using our phones as data tools.”
Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* Designing an even healthier app: Meet Morsel 2.0
* IDEO’s Tim Brown on ‘design thinking’ in healthcare
* Our Favorite (Plane, Train, & Transformer) Apps of 2010
* See a video with John De Souza