The Future Of The Healthcare App: New Ways To Engage Patients And Doctors

April 1, 2020

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It wasn’t until the recent events sur­round­ing COVID-19 that I began to con­sid­er how apps can help improve the health­care process. As some­one who is pure­ly an app user (not a devel­op­er), I decid­ed to use some of my social dis­tanc­ing time to research health­care apps and bet­ter under­stand where the oppor­tu­ni­ties lie. 

In my research I dis­cov­ered apps that let me talk to my doc­tor, check lab results, and sched­ule appoint­ments. Mean­while, my provider can use apps to cut down on paper­work and keep in bet­ter touch with patients. I also found apps that sim­ply serve to pro­mote pub­lic health.

Since there is a glut of health­care app infor­ma­tion out there, I decid­ed to focus on my most press­ing ques­tions: When do health­care providers use apps? Are health­care apps FDA approved? and How do I ensure my health­care app is HIPAA Com­pli­ant? These seem like per­ti­nent ques­tions for any­one think­ing of build­ing a health­care app. And, when you con­sid­er the health­care land­scape, there’s nev­er been a bet­ter time to design one.

Expe­ri­enc­ing A Health­care Boom 

While there are many health­care apps cur­rent­ly on the mar­ket, the need for cus­tom health­care soft­ware con­tin­ues to rise, espe­cial­ly in light of the fact that the U.S. health­care indus­try is expect­ed to grow 5.5% each year and will like­ly hit the $6‑trillion mark by 2027 (Fore­cast Sum­ma­ry). That is impres­sive growth. 

If you are con­sid­er­ing build­ing a cus­tom health­care soft­ware, there’s plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty to go around. But, first, it’s impor­tant to look at the mar­kets. Health­care app users pri­mar­i­ly fall into three groups: providers, patients, and the gen­er­al pub­lic. Like any oth­er app, the most suc­cess­ful health­care apps fill a void. Mobile MIM, Dia­betes Man­ag­er by Well­Doc, and AliveCor to name a few. I decid­ed it would be use­ful to know the most com­mon uses of apps with­in the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Insti­tute of Health (NIH are the peo­ple who fund med­ical research) there are five basic rea­sons health­care pro­fes­sion­als use apps:

  • Admin­is­tra­tion
  • Health record main­te­nance and access
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and consulting
  • Ref­er­ence and infor­ma­tion gathering 
  • Med­ical education

Let’s explore how each of these can improve the health­care experience.

Help­ing Doc­tors Serve Patients

The health­care indus­try is trend­ing toward greater patient focus. Patients over Paper­work is an exam­ple of this evo­lu­tion. After all, paper­work isn’t why peo­ple get into health­care. By remov­ing unnec­es­sary admin­is­tra­tive tasks, health­care pro­fes­sion­als improve patient expe­ri­ences by rein­vest­ing that lost time back into the patient.

More and more apps are focus­ing on a patient-cen­tered mod­el of care. Today’s health­care sys­tems are offer­ing soft­ware that allows patients to view lab results, request refills on med­ica­tions, and com­mu­ni­cate with health­care providers about con­cerns that may not require an office visit.

MyChart is one of the most wide­ly used mobile med­ical apps allow­ing this seam­less con­nec­tion between patient and provider. For patients to be able to say, My med­ica­tion isn’t work­ing; can we fig­ure some­thing else out?” is so much eas­i­er, faster, and cheap­er than sched­ul­ing a tra­di­tion­al appointment.

MyChart also makes life bet­ter for providers. After all, doc­tors and care teams are con­stant­ly on the move. The con­ve­nience of mobile health­care apps fits in well with an aver­age work­day. The increased acces­si­bil­i­ty allows doc­tors to respond in a time­ly man­ner to their patients while still com­plet­ing in-house tasks, such as doc­u­ment­ing patient needs and updat­ing med­ical records.

The upshot? Health­care apps are enjoy­ing mass adop­tion as a tool for decreas­ing non-essen­tial doc­tor vis­its, increas­ing effi­cien­cy and afford­abil­i­ty of care, and stream­lin­ing the entire patient care process. 

Health­care Apps As A Point-of-Reference

Anoth­er heavy-hit­ter cat­e­go­ry for med­ical pro­fes­sion­als is point-of-ref­er­ence apps. This soft­ware ensures med­ical pro­fes­sion­als are using cur­rent research when it comes to diag­noses and man­age­ment. Epocrates is a good exam­ple. The app gives doc­tors and phar­ma­cists clin­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant patient infor­ma­tion to help them deter­mine the best pos­si­ble patient prescription.

Health­care Apps That Pro­mote Pub­lic Health

Of course doc­tors aren’t the only ones offer­ing guid­ance. Pub­lic health work­ers edu­cate and empow­er indi­vid­u­als on a wide range of health issues. Many are turn­ing to health­care apps to gam­i­fy key health infor­ma­tion for patients.

For exam­ple, the Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol (CDC) has apps that teach chil­dren about var­i­ous health issues, includ­ing top­ics as rel­e­vant as the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Solve the Out­break encour­ages chil­dren to work as detec­tives to fig­ure out how to stop the spread of a dis­ease. It’s an engag­ing way for kids to apply their learn­ings to real life. 

Pub­lic health apps also find oth­er nov­el ways to pro­mote a healthy lifestyle. From step coun­ters to sleep and heart rate mon­i­tors, these apps make per­son­al health main­te­nance easy and acces­si­ble. Symp­tom track­ers and med­ica­tion man­agers also help doc­tors make more informed diag­noses and write more effec­tive prescriptions.

With edu­ca­tion at the fore­front, pub­lic health apps empow­er users to under­stand their health, offer­ing pre­ven­ta­tive solu­tions that help peo­ple lead a health­i­er life.

Are Health­care Apps FDA Approved?

When I began research­ing this post, my first ques­tion was how the FDA can reg­u­late and approve health­care apps. The answer? A 45-page guide on how and what it con­trols. And most all of it boils down to these sim­ple ques­tions: Could any part of your soft­ware pose a threat to patient safe­ty?,” Does your app reg­u­late med­ical equip­ment?” and Is your app diag­nos­tic?” If your answer is yes to any of these, you will need FDA approval.

As a con­sumer, I real­ized that the FDA does not reg­u­late most of the apps I uti­lize; how­ev­er, for those look­ing to devel­op a cus­tom soft­ware solu­tion, this is some­thing to look into more close­ly. Regard­less of FDA com­pli­ance, all health­care apps that trans­mit impor­tant and per­son­al infor­ma­tion must com­ply with HIPAA.

How Do I Ensure My Health­care App Is HIPAA Compliant?

Whether you’re a con­sumer or provider, HIPAA is a big deal. HIPAA pro­tects the patient’s pri­vate infor­ma­tion, while grant­i­ng access to his or her own health infor­ma­tion. Here is a help­ful info­graph­ic to bet­ter explain what HIPAA entails as a patient.

So how do health­care soft­wares ensure HIPAA Com­pli­ance? Health­care apps need to guar­an­tee total secu­ri­ty. All mes­sag­ing, infor­ma­tion stor­age, and host­ing must meet a high lev­el of safe­guards and pro­tec­tion. Like­ly, the soft­ware will need updates and con­tin­u­ous secu­ri­ty maintenance. 

This is where pro­fes­sion­als, like my cowork­ers, come in! You don’t want any short­cuts tak­en when pri­va­cy is at stake, and this is espe­cial­ly true when it comes to health­care software. 

Health­care App Definitions

There are dif­fer­ent types of health­care app clas­si­fi­ca­tions. Below, are the def­i­n­i­tions of those that are most fre­quent­ly used:

What is the def­i­n­i­tion of eHealth?

  • eHealth is a broad term with var­i­ous inter­pre­ta­tions; how­ev­er, the most promi­nent def­i­n­i­tion is any­thing that deliv­ers med­ical infor­ma­tion or assists health­care pro­fes­sion­als in orga­niz­ing charts. 

What is mHealth?

  • mHealth has var­i­ous mean­ings, but the under­ly­ing expla­na­tion is tech­nolo­gies sup­port­ed through mobile devices that encour­age med­ical and pub­lic health. It can include MMA (mobile med­ical apps), wear­ables, and even text reminder sys­tems. For exam­ple, I found out that my Apple Watch clas­si­fies as mHealth because it can mea­sure my blood pres­sure or remind me to stand up through­out the day. 

What is telehealth?

  • Tele­health is a broad term that refers to any­thing health-relat­ed done remote­ly. Under this umbrel­la, you will find clin­i­cal ser­vices, such as video appoint­ments as well as provider train­ings, meet­ings among health­care providers, and oth­er med­ical train­ing resources. When ref­er­enc­ing pure­ly clin­i­cal ser­vices, tele­health is referred to as telemedicine.

With the COVID cri­sis, health­care sys­tems are fran­ti­cal­ly chang­ing as many appoint­ments over to tele­health as they can. Chances are, if you have an appoint­ment in the next few weeks, your doc­tor will be meet­ing with you via videoconferencing.

What is Femtech?

  • Femtech comes up often. As a fast-grow­ing sec­tor of health­care soft­ware, it encom­pass­es any­thing that helps women with their spe­cif­ic health­care needs. Some exam­ples include peri­od track­ers and apps that allow you to get a pre­scrip­tion for birth con­trol with­out a clin­ic vis­it. I began my research with a few basic ques­tions. This soon led to an over­whelm­ing amount of infor­ma­tion around build­ing cus­tom health­care soft­ware. It will be inter­est­ing to see if atti­tudes sur­round­ing tele­health and eHealth shift in the wake of COVID-19. Will peo­ple be more or less like­ly to seek it out based on the epi­dem­ic? And will health care providers who may have had doubts in the past begin to adopt remote solu­tions more frequently?

What’s not in ques­tion is the need for health­care sys­tems to put greater ener­gy and resources into pro­vid­ing com­pre­hen­sive care, elec­tron­i­cal­ly. We’re only at the begin­ning of what’s pos­si­ble in the patient-focused mod­el of care. As the COVID-19 out­break has demon­strat­ed, we need bet­ter answers — solu­tions that close the dis­tance between patients and care­givers. An app is a great place to start.

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