Dr. Leslie Kernisan recently wrote a great piece about app prescribing, asking, “Should I be prescribing apps, and if so, which ones?” Since Happtique is all about integrating apps into clinical practice, I jumped at the chance to add to this important discussion.
Dr. Kernisan is right to be concerned and somewhat skeptical about app prescribing. More than 40,000 health apps exist across multiple platforms. And unlike other aspects of the heavily-regulated healthcare marketplace, there is little to no barrier to entry into the health app market—so basically anyone with an idea and some programming skills can build a mobile health app. The easy entry into the app market offers incredible opportunity for healthcare innovation; however, the open market comes with certain serious concerns, namely, “how credible are the apps I am (or my patients are) using?”
The progeny of the iPhone and the iPad will change the shape of your institution — and your balance sheet.
One of the more striking images, to me, out of the online spew in the last few months was from the inauguration. It was a wide view of an inaugural ball. There was the president waltzing with the first lady, and a crowd of several hundred watching them. What was striking about that image was that the several hundred people held several hundred small glowing rectangles in their hands. Practically every member of the crowd was carrying a smartphone and was photographing or videotaping the moment.
The scene was commonplace in its moment, remarkable only in the perspective of history — but such a short history. We could not have imagined so many people carrying smartphones at Obama’s first inaugural only four years ago. Four years before that, we could not have imagined any. The iPhone had not been invented.
There had been attempts at smartphones before the iPhone, and devices like tablets before the iPad. But the rampant success of iOS devices did far more than establish two profitable niche. It changed our relationship with the world.
In January we started asking ourselves, “How many people self-track?” It was an interesting question that stemmed from our discussion with Susannah Fox about the recent Pew report on Tracking for Health. Here’s a quick recap of the discussion so far.
The astute Brian Dolan of MobiHealthNews suggested that the Pew data on self-tracking for health seems to show constant – not growing – participation. According to Pew, in 2012 only 11% of adults track their health using mobile apps, up from 9% in 2011.
All this in the context of a massive increase in smartphone use. Pew data shows smartphone ownership rising 20% just in the last year, and this shows no signs of slowing down. Those smartphones are not just super-connected tweeting machines. They pack a variety of powerful sensors and technologies that can be used for self-tracking apps. We notice a lot of people using these, but our sample is skewed toward techies and scientists.
What is really going on in the bigger world? How many people are actually tracking?
A few weeks ago ABI, a market research firm, released a report on Wearable Computing Devices. According to the report there will be an estimated 485 million wearable computing devices shipped by 2018. Josh Flood, the analyst behind this report indicated that they estimated that 61% of all devices in wearable market are fitness or activity trackers. “Sports and fitness will continue to be the largest in shipments,” he mentioned “but we’ll start to see growth in other areas such as watches, cameras, and glasses.”
One just needs to venture into their local electronics retailer to see that self-tracking devices are becoming more widespread.
So why are our observations out of synch with the Pew numbers?
Should I be prescribing apps, and if so, which ones?
I recently came across this video of Happtique’s CEO Ben Chodor describing his company to Health 2.0’s Matthew Holt. In it, the CEO explains that Happtique is creating a safe and organized space, to make it easy for doctors to prescribe apps and otherwise “engage with patients.”
Because, he says “we believe that the day is going to come that doctors, and care managers, are going to prescribe apps. It’s going to be part of going to the doctor. He’s going to prescribe you Lipitor, and he’s going to give you a cholesterol adherence app.”
He goes on to say that they have a special process to make sure apps are “safe” and says this could be like the good housekeeping seal of approval for apps.
Hmm. I have to admit that I really can’t imagine myself ever prescribing a “cholesterol adherence” app. (More on why below; also found myself wondering what it exactly meant for Happtique to say an app was safe. What would an unsafe cholesterol app look like?)
I recently had the great fortune of attending Health 2.0 in San Francisco. The conference was abuzz with new medical technologies that are harnessing the power of innovation to solve healthcare problems including many new mobile medical application companies showcasing their potential. As I walked and talked around the exhibit floor, one thing caught my ear, or I should say one thing didn’t catch my ear. Among the chatter about these products, the concern about FDA regulation of this product segment, or even FDA regulation in general was noticeably absent. While many of the application developers are well aware of potential FDA involvement, most would be hard-pressed to outline the impact this would have on their companies and products.
Being labeled a medical device, which is the direction the FDA is leaning, could have a significant impact on business model organization, top-line revenue, and product deployment. For unprepared start-ups, FDA regulation could signal an end for their company. This is in stark contrast to well informed developers who are preparing themselves for the change and would most likely be able to leverage these regulations to their advantage.
The San Francisco teams only had 2 days to create a solution and 3 minutes to present. It was a high-stakes, high-pressure event. If known the challenges it was entered for are in parentheses. AT&T, Aetna, Healthline, Food Essentials and athenhealth all offered separate challenges and prizes for this codeathon.
DIG*IT Mobile (AT&T): This app tried to use the “desire engine” concept to develop a medication adherence app specifically for patients with HIV. The app includes a news feed, a way to compare yourself to other people like you, easy contact buttons for providers and a quick health summary. Patients can see a graph of their lab values and their medication compliance, as well as a graph for adherence. Each day the app asks if a patient has taken their medication, as well as providing alerts that tell them to take their meds. The med component showed their pills and when their prescriptions are due. They plan to incorporate crowd-sourcing information later.
DocSays (Aetna & Healthline): This team took on the challenge of improving hospital discharge outcomes. Patients are overloaded with information at the time of discharge. Their app, titled Doc Says, gives them automatic reminders about everything from activity levels, foods, medication to reminders for appointments. It can also work on an SMS system, so it doesn’t have to be smart-phone based. Options on the screen include defining all doctors instructions as tasks. The steps are broken down so that “pick up your lisinopril” is a separate task from the more generic “take your medicine.”
Doctors of my generation have experienced dramatic changes in the way we access the information we need to care for patients.
As a medical student 15 years ago, my “peripheral brain” consisted of fat textbooks sitting on office bookshelves or smaller, spiral-bound references stuffed into the bulging pockets of my lab coat. As a doctor-in-training, I replaced those bulky references with programs loaded onto PDAs. Today, smartphone apps allow health professionals at all levels to access the most up-to-date medical resources such as drug references, disease-risk calculators, and clinical guidelines—anytime, anywhere.
Lastly, apps can enable remote monitoring of high-risk patients and reduce the need for office visits. In a small study published in PLoS ONE, for example, researchers found that patients hospitalized for heart vessel blockages were able to complete “supervised” rehabilitation exercise sessions in their homes with a portable heart monitor and GPS receiver that transmitted real-time data to doctors via smartphone.
The gap between model or potential solutions and solutions that work in the real world – the translational gap — is arguably the greatest challenge we have in healthcare, and is something seen in both medical science and in digital health.
Translational Gap in Medical Science
The single most important lesson I learned from my many years as a bench scientist was how fragile most data are, whether presented by a colleague at lab meeting or (especially) if published by a leading academic in a high-profile journal. It was not uncommon to watch colleagues spend months or even years trying to build upon an exciting reported finding, only to eventually discover the underlying result was not reproducible.
This turns out to be a problem not only for other university researchers, but also for industry scientists who are trying to translate promising scientific findings into actual treatments for patients; obviously, if the underlying science doesn’t hold up, there isn’t anything to translate. Innovative analyses by John Ioannidis, now at Stanford, and more recently by scientists from Bayer and Amgen, have highlighted the surprisingly prevalence of this problem.
I love the GPS analogy for health care. Patients need a GPS for their health, showing them the reality of their past, present, and future health. The analogy has not only shown me how I want to give care for my patients, it has also given me insight into the pitfalls of automated medical care.
Way back in the days when GPS was new, the rental care company Hertz advertised “NeverLost,” a GPS on your dashboard (if you forked out the extra money for it). I was asked to give a talk in Oregon, and decided I would try out this cool new technology (since others were picking up my bill). While I found it overall very useful, there were a couple of times it didn’t work as advertised.
I needed a sweatshirt, so I used the NeverLost for directions to a Wal-Mart. It worked! It gave me flawless directions to a Wal-Mart store…in Las Vegas (over 1000 miles away). I stopped at a gas station and they told me that there was actually a Wal-Mart 1/2 mile down the road.
Then, when I was trying to get to Crater Lake, “Never Lost” repeatedly directed me down dirt roads, some of which had trees fallen across their path. NeverLost was quite perturbed when I didn’t follow its direction, nagging me to make an immediate u-turn back toward the tree in the road.
After entering the clinic a thought occurred to me: why do we need doctors? Then a second thought: why do we need nurses?
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
About a decade before the Obama administration started touting electronic medical records and evidence-based protocols there was MinuteClinic. The entity came into existence primarily to cater to patients paying out of pocket.
There was no need for a law requiring price transparency. In every market where the dominant buyers are patients spending their own money, prices are always transparent. MinuteClinic posts its prices on a computer screen and on readily available pamphlets. Clearly, the organization is competing on price. Entities that compete for patients based on price usually compete on quality as well. One study found that MinuteClinic nurses following computerized protocols follow best practice medicine more consistently than conventional primary care physicians. They also do a pretty good job of knowing what kind of medical problems they are competent to handle and which problems need referral to a physician.
Wherever you find price competition you usually also find that providers are respectful of your time. As the name “MinuteClinic” implies, this is an organization that knows you value your time as well as your pocketbook. I couldn’t help but wonder if the entire health care system might be this user friendly, if only the third-party payers weren’t around.
For the first 15 minutes of my 20 minute visit, the nurse barely looked at me. She was sitting in front of a computer screen typing in my answers to her questions, as she went through the required decision tree. I didn’t mind. Mine was a minor problem and I did not want to pay for more sophisticated service.