Health apps on the rise, but medical use is still limited

Health apps and gadgets are becoming more popular, but a lack of quality keeps them from being useful in medicine.

The health industry is finally starting to make better use of mobile apps, but there are still challenges ahead, according to Julie Bretland, founder of Our Mobile Health, speaking at the Samsung Developer conference in London.

"Over 97,000 health and medical apps are available," Bretland said at the event, "apps are convenient and easy to fit into everyday life. Over 500 million users are predicted to be using health apps by 2015, while 70 per cent of the [surveyed] US would be willing to pay for these apps."

While there's a substantial increase in health apps in the consumer sector, not to mention the rise in popularity of health tracking gadgets like the FitBit, Jawbone Up and Nike Fuelband, their penetration into the health services like the NHS is considerably lower.

A large part of the problem, explained Bretland, is that, while there's a large variety of apps, the health industry isn't going to touch them until there is an assurance of quality and until they have been peer reviewed, in order to ensure that they properly perform the tasks they claim to.

A recent study, the Wall Street Journal reports, found one particular app that claims to detect skin cancer was only accurate 6.8 per cent of the time. The worry then is that if an app incorrectly diagnoses a skin lesion as benign, it might convince you not to seek medical advice, which could be crucial in receiving early treatment.

According to Bretland, the challenge the health industry is facing is moving from "soulless institutions" to providing care in the home. Being able to keep people out of hospitals has a massive impact on cost savings in the healthcare industry -- not to mention the emotional wellbeing of a patient being cared for in their own home -- but requires a great deal of coordination in terms of services, healthcare professionals and patient records.

The emerging so-called "second generation medicine" involves moving away from hospital-based medicine, looking instead towards personal responsibility (in terms of monitoring one's own health and well-being), promoting health and using crowd-sourced healthcare information. This is all reliant on emerging technologies, emphasised Bretland.

Bretland concluded with a call to arms for the numerous developers present at the Samsung conference who specialise in healthcare apps and services to work with Samsung and other partners to create apps that work, and help make a difference in diagnosing and preventing illnesses.