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Study: Mobile apps have limited health benefits

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Mobile health care apps, though booming in popularity, are still limited in ability to actually improve health outcomes, according to a new study by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

IMS, a Parsippany-based provider of health care research, concludes that mobile apps hold great promise but require further development before they can lead to genuine health breakthroughs.

"We're not there yet," said Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. "We anticipate that will happen, certainly within the next five years."

The IMS study, titled Patient Apps for Improved Healthcare, concludes most efforts in app development focus on general wellness, especially diet and exercise, but do not address the greatest health care need: patients aged 65 and older who are facing multiple chronic diseases.

Part of the problem is that age groups tends to be less digital media savvy — with only 18 percent of those aged 65 and older using smartphones, compared with 55 percent of those aged 45 to 54 — the report states. IMS says increasing smartphone penetration among the elderly is critical to progress.

"We don't want to diminish the importance of apps that encourage people to stay healthy, but we also have to recognize that apps have a great role to play in helping patients manage their medical conditions," Aitken said.

In general, Aitken said physicians are enthusiastic about the possibility of recommending certain apps to their patients but will do so only on clear evidence that such apps work. IMS concludes that maturity of healthcare apps will depend on several factors, including:

- Development of credible evidence that apps can lead to better health outcomes;
- Wider recognition among payers and providers on the potential of apps to improve health care management;
- Better security and privacy guidelines;
- Integration of apps with other health IT systems.

About 43,000 health-related apps are available for download from the Apple iTunes store, but IMS says only 16,275 apps directly relate to patient health and treatment.

In addition, IMS says many apps have limited functionality, providing little more than information. The report also says patients need better guidance on navigating options because there is no objective assessment on the quality of apps on the marketplace.

"Over time, the app maturity model will see apps progress from being recommended on an ad hoc basis by individual physicians to systematic use in healthcare, and ultimately to an end goal of being a fully integrated component of health care management," the report concludes.

As mobile apps grow in popularity, they are also coming under regulatory scrutiny. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Sept. 23 it will regulate a limited number of mobile apps that function similar to medical devices. The FDA said it will specifically focus on apps that make recommendations for disease management and can harm patient safety if used wrong.

Aitken said the FDA's initiative is encouraging because it will establish ground rules for ensuring quality and will provide app developers more clarity as they design new products. Aitken said apps also hold great potential in improving compliance with medical prescriptions and communication between doctors and patients.

"Apps are not a substitute for doctor's visits but they can supplement and complement the delivery of health care," Aitken said.

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