mHealth Apps Poised to Dramatically Improve Care

It is estimated that half of Canadians own a smartphone. Mobile health applications, mHealth Apps, are making great strides in helping us manage our own care.

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Imagine wandering the pharmacy aisles and noticing a product that may offer relief for a health concern you are experiencing. However, you worry that it may interact with your current medication or nutritionals. You take out your smartphone, press an mHealth App and get the reassuring information you needed immediately.

The accessibility of smartphones is continually getting better in terms of both price and usability. People are using smartphones for all sorts of interactions with their daily lives. It is not surprising that there is a keen interest in mobile health applications for smartphones. Mobile health applications, or mHealth Apps, provide health information, support or assessments through smartphones and tablet computers. There are an estimated 97,000 mobile health applications on the market and growing.

I asked Dr. Kelly Grindrod, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy, her thoughts on mHealth Apps. She is conducting research on the usability of mHealth Apps for people over 50. In general, she’s discovered that people love the idea of having relevant information at their fingertips. Key information such as tracking your medications, drug-drug interactions are basic needs. However, seniors are also looking for insights with respect to interactions with vitamins, other nutriceuticals and food such as grapefruit.

A common feature of many mHealth Apps are reminders when to take medication. These do not seem to work well. Dr. Grindrod found that seniors confuse the reminder on a smartphone as an incoming call or that the reminder tone is too quiet. Unlike younger folks, seniors may not have the smartphone constantly near them. Therefore they may miss the reminder. She’s found that a beeping watch works best as a drug dosage reminder for adults over 50.

One limitation is that many mHealth Apps cannot be synchronized with a computer or cloud storage. (Cloud storage means data are stored offsite on third party servers. The cloud lets you share data across devices and backup data in case you lose or damage your device.) Dr. Grindrod feels that while most patients may not currently be concerned with data management, interoperability will become an increasingly important feature as personal health records gain in popularity.

Here are the top three mHealth Apps she recommends for patients in Canada:

The Great-West Life DrugHub iPhone app, the first of its kind from a Canadian group insurance benefits provider, puts a virtual medicine cabinet in your pocket and makes managing your and your family’s medications easy. DrugHub helps you stay on top of your family’s medications. Anyone in Canada can download it to their iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. Once you enter your medication information, it:

  • Reminds you when to take medications
  • Lets you know when to order refills
  • Gives you instant access to Great-West’s library of detailed drug information, including thousands of physician-reviewed drug articles

MyMedRec is a joint effort by several Canadian organizations including the Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Pharmacists Association, Canadian Nurses Association, and the Institute for Safe Medication Practices Canada. With a minimalist design, patients can easily input medications, create an administration record, schedule reminders, track blood pressure and cholesterol, note allergies, and record immunizations. Patients can also book appointments with healthcare providers and share their medication list by email. They can create multiple profiles to track their own health information and that of relatives and friends. 

<30 Days is an innovative app targeting cardiovascular risk factors brought to you by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. It makes a game of improving lifestyle. The app helps users set and prioritize changes they hope to make in their lives. Once users identify their top three goals, they receive daily challenges and activities to help reach their goals within 30 days (or less). Tasks are simple and users receive a digital health badge or trophy on completion.

<30 Days is a clean and colourful app. It tracks daily progress, notes how often users interact with it, and provides reminders if users have not finished daily challenges. With each action the app provides positive reinforcement to motivate users. It also connects to Facebook and Twitter to share heart healthy information and user lifestyle changes with friends and peers.

There are thousands of mHealth Apps available and people have choices based on their smartphone platform. Two more Apps are worth mention, Mobile and NHS 24 MSK for musculoskeletal health.

There is great potential for mHealth to boost preventive care, offer information to patients, and improve communication between patients and providers. However, Dr. Grindrod cautions that mHealth apps are largely unregulated and are not typically based on the best available evidence. This will make it a challenge to find the best apps in this expanding App market.

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