Should Physicians Be Prescribing Health Apps?

MD Magazine®, Volume 6 Issue 4, Volume 6, Issue 4

A few years ago the idea of physicians prescribing apps to their patients seemed ridiculous. However, health apps have become a large market and physicians are embracing them when interacting with patients.

A few years ago the idea of physicians prescribing apps to their patients seemed ridiculous. However, health apps have become a large market and physicians are embracing them when interacting with patients.

A third of physicians had recommended health apps to patients in the past year, according to data from Manhattan Research’s Taking the Pulse US 2014 study released in May. In addition, nearly half of physicians with smartphones used them to show patients images or videos on the devices.

A separate survey from eClinicalWorks found that a majority of physicians saw the benefit of having patients use mobile health apps. In particular, the respondents thought linking a mobile health app to an electronic health record could have a large impact on medication adherence, diabetes, and preventative care.

Most patients use fitness apps to count calories, monitor exercise, or lose weight. However, other popular apps include iTriage, which allows patients to check their symptoms and locate a physician or hospital in the event of an emergency; and Tummy Trends, for patients to track their irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, exercise habits, water intake, fiber intake, and stress levels.

The new generation of health apps uses attachments to turn a phone into a heart monitor or an otoscope so patients can do their own examinations and send the results to their physician without the hassle of going to the doctor’s office.

They may be helpful, physicians should remain aware of the troubles of health apps. The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) recently voted that physicians need to educate patients on health apps. Specifically, the association is reiterating the importance of seeing a physician instead of solely relying on medical websites or health apps to self-diagnose.

"Physicians want to see patients educating themselves and taking control of their health and when used correctly these medical websites and apps are a great tool," Michael R. Brown, DO, said in a statement. "However, the AOA wants to make sure patients realize that these sites and apps, no matter how convenient, cannot replace the patient-physician relationship."

The AOA pointed out every patient is unique and medical websites and apps do not usually take into account patient medical history.

Some in Congress have also called for the Food and Drug Administration to evolve so it can better monitor health apps since some aren’t just useless, they can actually cause harm to a patient.

promised to measure blood pressure using only an iPhone and no attachments and

Recently, iMedicalApps called out one app, in particular, for being misleading and having the potential to cause harm to a patient. The “Instant Blood Pressure—Monitor Blood Pressure Using Only Your iPhone” app claimed it was developed by a team from Johns Hopkins, which is slightly misleading. In reality, the app was designed by a biomedical engineer who was trained at Johns Hopkins, but the app itself is not, as implied, from the university.

If physicians encourage their patients to use health apps, they should also be aware of which ones patients are using and whether or not the apps are even helpful.