Can apps, mobile health replace physicians?

When Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla wrote an eye-opening commentary in January positing that computers, and particularly mobile health devices, could replace certain physician functions, it seemed a bit of a stretch.

But a new commentary published last week in the Huffington Post by social media and technology freelance writer Karthika Muthukumaraswamy made me think again. She writes about a host of automated options that are dovetailing nicely with patients' desire to be more in control of their own healthcare--and possibly interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.

What I want to know is: Are my readers nervous? Can an app that checks vitals, or even diagnoses disease, truly replace the physician at the bedside? Take a look at Muthukumaraswamy's summary of available online tools first, then tell us what you think.


  • MIT is actually testing this concept: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a project--New Media Medicine--that's offering computerized information to patients and evaluating the effect of patients taking on low-level clinical tasks like monitoring their own blood sugars, checking weight and BP regularly, evaluating symptoms and even diagnosing their own non-critical conditions.
  • Patients already are Googling their symptoms--and accessing reams of untested, unreliable information--long before they ever schedule a doctor's visit, Muthukumaraswamy notes. Her hope is that apps that can make patient's efforts clinically relevant by putting "together all of this data, check its reliability, create a consensus, and deliver it within the context of a patient's medical history and biographic and genetic information."
  • Touchscreen technology is bringing smartphone diagnosis closer to the masses: They're still a few years off, as far as commercial availability, but researchers have created a host of apps that can diagnose certain diseases, like malaria, TB, and others, from field-drawn fluid samples. Many are designed to be delivered by (and to) relatively untrained field workers. It's only a short skip to the average home user.
  • Public health officials are in favor, and pushing for just "self-testing personal devices will allow people to diagnose themselves for embarrassing illnesses, such as sexually transmitted diseases, thus helping treat and curtail transmission," Muthukumaraswamy says.


And don't forget: Some government agencies, like the U.K.'s National Health Service, are directing physicians to prescribe apps to patients, as a way to reduce costs and possibly improve care. NHS officials clearly indicated they wanted to reduce physician visits.

My personal take: Apps, plug-ins and mobile software won't ever replace physicians, but they certainly have the capability to take over low-level health activities, and may ease some of the ever-tightening physician shortage.

HIStalk Mobile's Travis Good seems to agree. His intriguing insights see the physician-app relationship as far more complementary than competitive. Apps can improve patient/physician communication, involve patients in their own care, and other positive improvements, he says.

So...tell us what you think. Will patients be seeing Dr. iPhone before their primary care physicians anytime soon? Let us know on LinkedIn, Twitter, in the comments section, or just email me. - Sara