In Depth

Demand on the Rise for Health Care Apps

By Debra Kaufman

At Apple’s 2009 worldwide developer’s conference, Johnson & Johnson company LifeScan demonstrated an app that lets diabetics upload glucose readings from their blood glucose monitors to their iPhone, send the readings and a message about how they’re feeling to their physician, and use a meal builder and insulin schedule.

“That was a watershed moment,” said Brian Dolan, who co-founded and edits MobiHealthNews.com, a Web site about the health care sector’s adoption of mobile technology. “In the last year, health care as a mobile sector really picked up steam.”

In the arena of iPhone apps, there is perhaps no division attracting as much attention as health care. MobiHealthNews.com did the research to quantify the momentum and came up with some astonishing figures. (The full report is available on the site for sale, but its findings were made available to NewsPro.)

As of March 2010, upward of 5,820 apps are related to medical, health and fitness. Health- and medical-related apps aimed at consumers let people track chronic illnesses, sleep patterns, headaches and menstrual cycles. They allow users to store important medical information, research natural cures and figure out what their symptoms mean.

How many people are downloading them? The vast majority of apps — more than 5,000 — are for the iPhone, but since Apple is not forthcoming on their download numbers, it’s impossible to definitively quantify the number of downloads.

That is changing as the number of apps written for other platforms — Blackberry, Palm, Android, Nokia and 3rd party apps — burgeons. Dolan reports that he investigated the approximately 500 Android-based health care apps.

“We were very conservative with our counting and, as of March 1, they’d gotten 3.3 million downloads already,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing. When you consider that Apple has 5,000 apps, should we extrapolate out to 30 million downloads? I don’t know what it is for sure, but it’s a big figure.”

Despite the LifeScan app being demonstrated by a big corporation, the majority of apps are still written by individual developers, companies that produce apps and medical publishers with a Web presence online. “These were the first established players,” said Dolan. “Pharma has just a couple. Medical device makers are slowly getting into it. And slowly we’re seeing more and more coming from health care providers.”

On March 1, for example, the Mayo Clinic launched the free Mayo Clinic Symptom Checker, an iPhone/iTouch app that lets users enter symptoms and provides guidance on self-care as well as advice on when professional care is necessary. It also allows users to search the Mayo Clinic Web site on various health topics and gives information about Mayo Clinic care. Launched in January, the Mayo Clinic Meditation app, which costs $2.99 in the iTunes store, teaches mind-body techniques based on research by a physician.

Some of the apps are aimed at doctors and other health care professionals, including Epocrates RX, a continually updated drug database; General Medical History, an app to assist medical students taking a patient’s history; ReachMD CME, an app for doctors to earn continuing medical education credits; and numerous calculators, including MedCalc, for physicians to get access to medical formulas.

Other medically oriented apps provide health care professionals with such tools as eye charts and medical dictionaries. Even The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, is available, priced at $49.95. Most apps — aimed at consumers or physicians — are free or priced at 99 cents or $1.99.
What kind of impact do these apps have on peoples’ medical decisions and knowledge? Very little is known, and the relatively limited penetration of iPhones/iTouch may make apps appear to be of little importance in providing information and tools about health care. But as smart phone penetration soars, health care apps are certain to become ubiquitous.

“It won’t be long before we can easily get the information we want on demand,” said MDiTV.com anchor-senior news editor Andrew Holtz, who notes that MDiTV will also be distributed to iPhone.

“We won’t care if it’s an iPhone app or an Internet-connected TV device. Just like we flip on the lights without paying attention to the local wiring and power grid, we’ll just reach out for content and get it.”