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Apps

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Here’s a design approach that I really, really dislike: the scrolling wheel that is often used for number entry in iOS apps:

I find that the scrolling wheel makes it very tiresome to enter numbers, and much prefer apps that offer a number pad, or another way to touch the number you need. (Or at least decrease the number at hand in sensible increments.)

You may think I’m being too picky, but I really think our ability to leverage technology will hinge in part on these apps and devices being very usable.

And that usability has to be considered for everyone involved: patients, caregivers, and clinicians.

Why am I looking at an app to enter blood pressure?

Let me start by saying that ideally nobody should be entering vitals data manually. (Not me, not the patient, not the caregivers, not the assisted-living facility staff.)

Instead, we should all be surrounded by BP machines that easily send their data to some computerized system, and said system should then be able to display and share the data without too much hassle.

But, we don’t yet live in this world, to my frequent mild sorrow. This means that it’s still a major hassle to have regular people track what is probably the number one most useful data for us in internal medicine and geriatrics: blood pressure (BP) & pulse.

Why is BP and pulse data so useful, so often?

To begin with, we need this data when people are feeling unwell, as it helps us assess how serious things might be.

And of course, even when people aren’t acutely ill, we often need this data. That’s because most of our patients are either:

  • Taking medication that affects BP and pulse (like cardiovascular meds, but many others affect as well)
  • Living with a chronic condition that can affect BP and pulse (such as a-fib)
  • All the above

As we know, the occasional office-based measurement is a lousy way to ascertain usual BP (which is relevant for chronic meds), and may not capture episodic disturbances.

Continue reading “An Example of Bad Design: This App’s Interface for Entering Blood Pressure”

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Apple transformed portable music players. It redefined what we expect from cell phones. It brought tablet computing to the masses.

Is the company planning to do the same for mobile health?

Some industry watchers think so.

This isn’t a small venture. Apple executives suggest that Healthbook is being positioned as perhaps the key selling point when the company releases its next operating system for iPhone, likely later this year. And the app also may pair with a new “iWatch” that’s under development and will contain biometric sensors.

In his lengthy post, Gurman further details how Healthbook is expected to work. Its interface is ”largely inspired” by an existing iPhone application called Passbook, which is intended to centralize a user’s boarding passes, loyalty coupons, and so on in one place. Beyond fitness and diet, the app also has sections devoted to tracking physical activity, our sleeping habits, and hydration.

And Healthbook will offer blood monitoring features—”perhaps the most unique and important elements of the application,” Gurman writes—although it’s unclear exactly what it will track beyond oxygen saturation and glucose levels.

App’s appearance not unexpected

The long-awaited screenshots of Healthbook follow months of reports that Apple’s readying a push into the health care space. While the company’s interest in the sector is nothing new—my team has spent years covering its health-related innovations—Apple’s recent focus has been much more discrete.

Continue reading “The Apple Has Landed”

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Hello.  I am Mike Painter, and I track. I don’t necessarily have a compelling reason to track health parameters such as exercise patterns, heart rate, weight, diet and the occasional blood pressure. Yet I do.  I do most of my tracking with several small devices, simple sensors and software applications. My tracking is also pretty social—meaning I share much of my data widely and daily. You’re welcome to see it—most of it is on Strava. Admittedly, I still keep some data daily on a paper calendar, and I do monitor diet and sleep in my head—i.e., nobody needs to remind me about my food splurge days. The local bakery is intimately aware of that data point as the employees witness me charge in, wild-eyed and drooling for a giant cinnamon roll every Thursday morning—almost without fail.

It all feels pretty normal to me.

Here’s the rest of the story: I track to enhance athletic performance rather than monitor my health, per se, or even really my wellness. I am an avid cyclist and have tracked miles, location, accumulated elevation, heart rate and power readings and other data for years. I share that information with both cyclist colleagues I know and don’t know on Strava. That site eagerly ingests my data—and among other things, plops it into riding (and running) segment leader boards, riding heat maps—and, most importantly, in training, trend graphs like the attached. All that data is incredibly helpful to me—it empowers me by making me face the numbers—it makes my training data- and reality-based. I don’t have to guess to maximize my fitness and minimize my fatigue level in anticipation of a big event. I follow the numbers.

Is all that bad? To me, my obsession with tracking my athletic performance seems like an extension of observing data for health and wellness.

Continue reading “Confessions of a Self-Tracker”

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Having been supported by several small business grants from the National Cancer Institute to create online interventions for cancer patients, I have been learning gradually about commercialization models to get our work out to the public. I am dismayed about the major disconnect between eHealth entrepreneurs and eHealth intervention researchers (my personal reference group).

Last year I attended Stanford Medicine X and last week I did a demo of one of our web sites at Health 2.0 in Santa Clara. Both times, I was struck by the assumption in the IT developer and consumer community that giving people realtime feedback about their health will automatically result in major positive changes in behavior, not to mention cost savings for insurers.

The Connected Patient movement seems particularly naïve to me. Psychologists have been using self-monitoring, i.e. recording behaviors such as smoking, eating, and exercise, for at least 30 years to promote behavior change. First we used paper-and-pencil diaries, but researchers like Saul Schiffman quickly adapted the first handheld computers to prompt people to record their behaviors in realtime, greatly increasing the accuracy and power of self-monitoring.

As technology has advanced, so have our means of self-monitoring. Overall, however, the technology matters far less than the procedure itself. For most people, tracking their smoking, calories, mood, or steps does change unhealthy behaviors somewhat, for a limited period of time. A small group of highly educated, motivated people is more successful in using self-monitoring to make larger, more lasting changes.

I was reminded of this last year in a seminar on tracking at Stanford Medicine X, when a concierge physician from San Francisco and several of his patients talked about being empowered to change their health by using feedback from various types of sensors. One had paid out of pocket for a continuous blood glucose monitor since his insurance would not cover the costs to use it for his Type II diabetes.

Another doggedly demanded access to the data from his cardiac defibrillator. They believed their experiences heralded a sea change in health care in the United States. I am all for empowering patients with knowledge, tracking tools, and social support.

However, if knowledge and feedback was all it took to change unhealthy behaviors, psychologists would be superfluous in the world.

Continue reading “Healthcare’s Tech Disconnect: Why Aren’t We Building the Products Patients Really Need?”

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The developers of  the app Pain Care, the winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Project Health Design challenge two years ago,  have this to say about THCB contributing writer Dr. Leslie Kernisan’s recent post wondering why the winning entries of development challenges have a habit of  disappearing and never being heard from again:

We are the app developer. We are also disappointed with the outcome of the app. But I think we also learned valuable lessons here.

One of the challenges small business facing is the need to rapid prototype and test the market, and then move on to another idea when the previous idea fails to gain traction. That is especially true with grant funded projects — they need to “make money” after the grant ends in order to justify continued development effort.

Pain Care was developed in the early days of mHealth, and it was indeed very physician focused — the reason is that we believe we must engage physicians to look at the data. We still hold that belief. It is a learning process for us. We put in our own money to develop the app, and fortunately, won the developer challenge.

We made the app public after the challenge to “test the market” — so to speak. But, as you know, essentially *none* of the pure app-based “patient journal” has turned out to be a success (let alone a financial success). Our app is no exception. It is enormously costly keep the app updated for all those iPhone, iPad, iOS released every year, as well as thousands of Android devices released since then.

So, the app becomes one of those “outdated” apps in the app store, and I think it is quite obvious to users as well. However, I think the app did contribute significantly to the “science” of mHealth. We now understand much more what works and what not in “patient engagement”. Many other “pain management” apps have since emerged, and many have done a better job than ours. I think that was what RWJF wanted when they challenged developers back then. :)

Today, we do things a lot differently. We no longer release research grant-funded apps to the public. Instead, we run clinical studies to test them in much smaller / controlled groups. We do not attempt to tackle vague “big problems” like general pain management any more — instead, we are much more focused on managing specific diseases that include pain. We are also moving beyond “pure software” and “simple reminders” to engage people in multiple modalities.

All of these would not be possible without the generous award RWJF gave us in picking Pain Care as the winner of one of the first developer challenges.

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Health care providers and consumers are increasingly using mobile technology to exchange information. Many health IT providers readily acknowledge that some level of oversight is required to ensure patient safety and privacy protections, but many providers question whether the FDA is the right agency for the job and want to see the FDASIA recommendations.

Can the FDA, with its already limited resources and lengthy review cycles, regulate the fast-moving health IT industry? Should it? Health IT is fundamentally different from a medical device in many ways. For oversight purposes, the key differentiator between the two is the opportunity for clinical intervention in the use of health IT. Many medical devices interact directly with the patient (such as an infusion pump or pacemaker). Most health IT, on the other hand, merely provides information to clinicians, who ultimately make independent, experienced care decisions. Physicians are informed, but not controlled, by the information. This leads to a vast difference in the patient risk proposition and rigid regulatory oversight is not appropriate.

Advocates of a broad health IT oversight framework – which encompasses mobile health IT – are urging the FDA to delay release of its final guidance, particularly in light of a July 2012 Congressional mandate for the creation of a comprehensive oversight framework that avoids regulatory duplication.

But some mobile medical application developers are pressing the FDA to move forward immediately, believing its guidance will reduce the regulatory uncertainty that they believe is stifling innovation and investment in some aspects of mHealth.

Continue reading “Regulating Health IT: When, Who, and How?”

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What does it mean when an app wins a major foundation’s developer challenge, and then isn’t updated for two and a half years?

Today, as I was doing a little background research on task management apps for caregivers, I came across a 2012 post listing Pain Care as a handy app for caregivers.

Pain is certainly something that comes up a lot when it comes to geriatrics and supporting caregivers, so I decided to learn a little more about this app.

“The Pain Care app won the “Project HealthDesign” challenge by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and California HealthCare Foundation,” reads the descriptive text in the Google Play Store.

Well, well, well! RWJF and CHCF are big respectable players in my world, so I was impressed.

But then as I looked at the user reviews, I noticed something odd. Namely, that the most recent one seems to be from April 2012, which is like 2-3 generations ago when it comes to apps.

And furthermore, the app itself was last updated in February 2011. This is like a lifetime ago when it comes to apps.

I decided to download the app and give it a whirl. It’s ok. Seems to be an app for journaling and documenting pain episodes, along with associated triggers. Really looks like something developed by doctors: one of the options for describing the type of pain is “lancinating,” and in a list of “side-effects” (side effects of what? the pain medication one may have just taken?) there is the option to check “sexual dysfunction.” Or you could check “Difficulty with breathing.” (In case you just overdosed on your opiates, perhaps.)

The app does connect to a browser-based account where I was able to view a summary of the pain episode I’d documented. It looked like something that one should print and give to a doctor, and in truth, it would probably be helpful.

Setting snarky comments about the vocabulary aside: this app actually looks like a good start for a pain journal. But it needs improvement and refining, in order to improve usability and quality. Also, although I don’t know much about app development and maintenance, I assume that apps should be periodically upgraded to maintain good performance as the operating systems of iPhones and Android phones evolve.

Continue reading “When Foundation-Approved Apps Founder”

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The hype over mobile health is deafening on most days and downright annoying on some.  So it is with some reluctance that I admit that mobile has the potential to be a game-changer in health.  I’ve professed enthusiasm before, but that was largely around the use of wireless sensors to measure physiologic signals and SMS text as a way to deliver messages to patients and consumers.  For several years, the industry has been awash with smartphone apps (by a recent count more than 40,000).  At the Center for Connected Health, we started looking at mobile health as far back as 2008 and could not justify the excitement around smart phones and apps at that time, mostly because our patient population did not demonstrate significant enough adoption of smartphones to justify development in this area.

I felt very unpopular at all of the major conferences.  I talked about our success with text messaging as a tool for engaging pregnant teens in their prenatal care and helping patients battling addiction to stick with their care plan, while others were touting the virtues of their various apps.

It’s worth noting that our primary focus at the Center for Connected Health has been patients with chronic illness.  As such, we are every bit as concerned about the 85 year old with congestive heart failure as we are about the young professional with hypertension.  However, across the population of people with chronic disease, smartphone adoption has lagged.  I felt like our strategy was vindicated when my friend Susannah Fox published research showing that folks with two or more chronic illnesses (independent of other variables such as age and socioeconomic status) use technology in the context of their health less than others.

The world of patient care appears to be catching up to the rest of mobile.  Not that I would ever endorse the irrational exuberance shown for mobile health apps in general, but some recent data points that changed my thinking are worth noting.

Continue reading “Could Mobile Health Become Addictive?”

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The fall sports season is tantalizingly near; players and fans alike are gearing up for the Friday night lights and Sunday afternoon showdowns. But the season comes at a cost; every bone-jarring hit and wince-inducing header carries the risk of sustaining a concussion.

Most media coverage focuses on the National Football League’s professional players, but 65% of traumatic brain injuries are sustained by children. The majority are thought to be undiagnosed, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year. This puts athletes at risk of sustaining a second concussion before their brains are fully healed, leading to longer recoveries, permanent neurological damage, and the potentially-fatal Second Impact Syndrome.

A just-released app hopes to change that. Sway Medical, founded by Chase Curtiss in 2011, aims to help health professionals objectively rate the risk of concussion at the source: on the football field or soccer pitch. On-the-spot concussion diagnosis is just the beginning, though; in the near future, the young company plans to enter the hospital space by the end of the year.

The FDA-approved app, called Sway Balance, uses proprietary software and the iPhone’s accelerometer to assess an athlete’s balance over time. In a phone interview, founder and CEO Chase Curtiss said that the app can be used by a health professional to “set up a baseline,” then “compare an athlete over the course of a season to that established norm.” Poor performance compared to baseline is indicative of a possible concussion.

Health care professionals can purchase a yearly subscription to the app for $199 – a fraction of the cost of a typical balance platform – and the patient-facing app is free to download.

Sway Medical has partnered with ImPACT Applications, an organization which Curtiss described as conducting the “gold standard of concussion testing on the market.” ImPACT uses baseline cognitive testing – verbal and visual memory, processing speed, and reaction time – and synchronous testing immediately after a hit to assess if a concussion has occurred.

“But you don’t have an element of physical control of the body,” Curtiss said – which is where Sway Balance comes in. “[ImPACT’s] interest in us is in pairing a balance test with cognitive testing.”

Continue reading “Diagnosing Concussions and Assessing Balance- On Your iPhone”

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It’s fitting that this year’s ACOG meeting was held in New Orleans, because navigating the 2013 ASCCP Pap Smear Management Guidelines presented there feels like trying to make my way through the Mississippi bayou. The guidelines include 18 different algorithms encompassing almost any combination of pap and HPV abnormality we docs are likely to encounter among our patients.  But all tributaries lead to the same place, where we achieve optimal reduction in cervical cancer with minimal harm.

Cervical cancer prevention is a process with benefits and harms. Risk cannot be reduced to zero with currently available strategies, and attempts to achieve zero risk may result in unbalanced harms, including over treatment. …optimal prevention strategies should identify those HPV-related abnormalities likely to progress to invasive cancers while avoiding destructive treatment of abnormalities not destined to become cancerous. Adopted management strategies provide what participants considered an acceptable level of risk of failing to detect high-grade neoplasia or cancer in a given clinical situation.

I’m not even going to try to spell out everything in the guidelines, which come from the American Society of Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP), except to say that they represent further movement away from aggressive screening and treatment of pap smear abnormalities, especially in younger women, in whom treatment carries small but real childbearing risks. The guidelines are increasingly reliant upon HPV testing to determine who and how often to screen, and when to treat.  They also acknowledge the role of testing for HPV 16 and 18 as a way to be sure that those women with adenocarcinoma of the cervix (which is less likely to show up as cancer on a pap smear) are identified and treated.

From the guidelines-
Continue reading “The New HPV Guidelines. Balancing Benefits and Harms of Cervical Cancer Screening”

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