In the United States, half of all adults have one or more chronic conditions.1 Obesity rates are at an all-time high, and chronic disease continues to be one of the most costly burdens on the healthcare system.
As a practicing physician for over 20 years, it did not take long for me to realize how many preventable deaths happened on a daily basis in our country. Seeing a 40-year-old father being rushed into the emergency room due to a heart attack is a painful experience to be part of; however, these types of situations have always pushed me to research, examine, and innovate solutions to keep people healthier.
In more recent years, I have started to turn to health apps to help me guide my patients toward a healthier lifestyle. As I’ve investigated this space from a physician’s perspective, I’ve found that health applications have a tremendous amount of potential and the ability to transform one’s health. Unfortunately, they cannot all be trusted.
Health apps can work. I’ve seen it. But they can also fail, and I’ve seen the frustration and disappointment related to that as well. Changing one’s behaviors and attempting to create a new lifestyle is no easy feat, which is why I am extremely cautious with the types of health apps I recommend to my patients.
With 165,000 health apps available to consumers today, there is an overwhelming amount of options for consumers and physicians to test. From years of experience researching this market, I’ve realized there are ways to cut through the crowded space. According to an IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics report, over 50 percent of health apps have narrow functionality, which limits their ability to help people make sustainable health behavior changes.2
This report discusses the seven main dimensions of app functionality. These include:
- Inform: Provide users with educational health information through text, photos, and videos.
- Instruct: Provide clear instructions so the user can easily navigate and utilize the app.
- Record: Capture data that the user enters, as well as data that is pulled in through wearables.
- Display: Display users’ data through aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-read graphs and charts.
- Guide: Provide context and guidance around users’ data to help them understand how to make sense of the information.
- Remind/Alert: Provide reminders to the user to help them remember to stick to their goals.
- Communicate: Allow the app to be a form of communication between a user and their physician.
Each of these dimensions is fundamental to a health app created for more than gathering user data. True success stems from educating users with health information, providing guidance and context to their data, and helping them more accurately communicate about their health and wellness with their physicians. No single dimension is more important than the others, which drives the need for consumers and physicians to utilize multifunctional apps.
Throughout the last couple of years, I have started to integrate health apps into my practice. I find that they help my patients become more aware of their decisions and actions, and it helps me to better understand them as individuals. A health app paints a picture for me of their everyday lives, helps me understand what motivates them, and allows me to identify patterns in their behaviors.
I am an advocate for treating each patient based on their specific needs and refraining from a one-size-fits-all treatment approach. For instance, when I see a patient who eats extremely unhealthy and does not work out at all, my recommendation may be to simply cut a single soda a day from their diet and walk for 5 minutes a day. Those may be small recommendations, but they are realistic and will work for that individual. In this case, a health app has the ability to provide constant reminders to my patient, as well as offer other lifestyle and health tips for them to test.
On the other hand, if I see a patient who diligently walks 10,000 steps a day and eats a balanced meal, but continues to struggle with weight gain, I may recommend more strenuous tactics. Adding strength training to their routine, for example, would help them build and maintain the lean skeletal muscle that leads to a loss of fat. There are health apps that are able to create personalized strength-training workouts that include video demonstrations of each exercise. I find the videos to be especially beneficial, since people often do not know the proper strength-training exercises and form to maximize their workout.
A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research3 found that users of a multifunctionality health app were able to:
- Reduce their body weight by an average of 13.5 lbs;
- Reduce their waist circumference by 7.2 cm;
- Lower their systolic and diastolic blood pressure; and
- Attain significant increases in HDL and VO2 max.
These kinds of significant results prove that health apps have the ability and potential to truly transform people’s lives and guide them to a healthier lifestyle. Many of my patients have seen tremendous success by engaging with health apps. Of course, I am very particular about the health apps I trust enough to recommend. They must be multifunctional, but also based on extensive scientific evidence and medical research to truly reach this kind of success.