MAYWOOD, Ill. – Smartphones have revolutionized how many of us function in our daily lives. To lose our phone is almost as painful as losing a limb. The medical field is finding that smartphone apps also can be helpful in transforming a person’s health habits.
“Smartphones are a great way for people to track how their daily activities impact their health,” said Aaron Michelfelder, MD, a physician at Loyola University Health System and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “They give patients instant access to the effects their habits have on daily living, and they are better able to make connections between what they do and how they feel."
Michelfelder believes the most beneficial apps are for people needing to monitor blood sugar and blood pressure, mood tracking and asthma as well as fitness and nutrition.
“People who are detailed and willing to truly keep track of their data find them the most beneficial,” Michelfelder said. “It’s great that they can see right away I had such and such for dinner and this is how it impacted my blood sugar.”
Michelfelder believes these apps also help physicians to better treat a patient and have a more well-rounded view of their health.
“I love when my patients bring their smartphone to a visit and show me their data or even email me in advance,” Michelfelder said. “This real-time data helps me better analyze a patient’s health than just the information I get from an office visit. This way instead of maybe having two blood pressure readings, I’ll have 25. This allows me to have a more in-depth conversation with the patient about where to go next."
Though Michelfelder believes medical apps have benefits, there are limits and cautions people need to be aware of as well.
“One of the greatest concerns I have is that the apps might not be compliant with the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act that protects patients’ health information,” Michelfelder said. “This is especially true for apps that allow you to email your medical information."
He suggests patients read an app’s terms and agreements to ensure a copy of the email is not being sent to the company and that personal medical information is not being stored in an unsecure location. Also, make sure the medical apps are password protected.
“Many of the diagnostic apps are not very reliable. I can see these becoming more helpful in the future. Right now, it is best not to use your phone to self-diagnose a problem. But it’s always a great idea to bring any concerns and ideas you have to your physician to discuss in detail,” Michelfelder said.
He also sees medical apps as a great way to get young adults and teens engaged in their health habits.
“Research has shown that kids ages 7-18 average 7 hours and 38 minutes a day in front of a screen. Why not use some of that screen time to get them engaged in their health like using a pedometer app?” Michelfelder said.
Michelfelder warns patients to not download apps that are specific for physicians and notes that consumer medical apps are only effective when used in conjunction with a health professional. He believes they can be a great way for patients to continue to be engaged in the health process. He suggests people even use the notes function on their phone to keep a running list of questions for their physician, so they don’t forget them when they come in for a scheduled visit.
“For centuries, physicians have encouraged patients to use diaries to keep track of their health habits. Now, it’s just on the phone. It’s a lot easier than carrying around an extra notebook,” Michelfelder said.