mHealth roundup: Health apps to cut costs, improve care

phone apps
The past year was a busy one for healthcare app developers.

Mobile apps are ubiquitous in wellness and healthcare, driven by consumers eager for healthcare information at their fingertips. Hospitals, health systems and health insurance companies have embraced them as a way to provide better, faster and more cost-effective care and treatment.

A top focal point for app makers has been management of chronic illness, such as diabetes, as the population of patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes swells. Health and fitness are also a prime focus for payers and providers and are popular with consumers.

But app makers are working to expand beyond those entry-level functions to tackle everything from patient care and management to back-end operations and streamlined business processes.

Here’s a roundup of some of the promising mHealth app developments FierceHealthcare reported on in 2016:

Apps that save money, streamline workflow

NewYork-Presbyterian launched a digital health suite to enhance patient care and foster faster and easier interaction among physicians. It includes an app called Digital Second Opinion that lets patients contact specialists from ColumbiaDoctors and Weill Cornell Medicine via an online portal. Another app in the suite provides wider access to specialty care across the New York City region and a third app provides virtual consult follow-up in lieu of an in-office visit.

NYP and Regional Hospital Network began working on an app to improve communication and access to care providers, with features ranging from mobile payment to data access.

Mount Sinai Health System debuted an Android version of its mobile application for patients, called MountSinaiNY, which provides a one-touch patient experience, featuring information and links to access health services. The app initially debuted in the Apple App Store in June 2016. The organization has plans to update the app to include telemedicine, wayfinding and enhanced access to Mount Sinai services.

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai launched an enterprisewide platform that lets doctors prescribe apps to patients and offers an “app store” of evidence-based apps integrated with the systems’ digital prescription delivery system. The RxUniverse platform helps patients easily find effective health apps that will allow them more control of their health.

Centura Health in Colorado debuted an app to cut emergency room visits and hospital readmission rates. The app is aimed at providing house call and care coordination by allowing patients to communicate with providers in medical situations that may or may not require an ER visit.

McGill University Health Centre researchers created an app that enabled collaborative, real-time patient data entry and streamlined, smoother patient handoff. The Canada organization's FLOW app lets care teams share and enter short notes as well as use tags to set priorities.

Apps to monitor, treat diabetes

More than 1,500 apps assist with diabetes treatment and management, with a good number aiming to improve daily blood testing and sugar level monitoring. As a Cardiff University School of Medicine study revealed this year, Type 2 diabetics can benefit from smartphone apps that offer disease self-management features.

The American Diabetes Association used IBM’s Watson technology for an app aimed at identifying patterns in lifestyle and health to drive better treatment and disease management. The two also partnered to create a personalized mHealth app that gets smarter over time and works with Watson Care Manager. They are also teaming on a diabetes-focused app development challenge.

Scripps Health researchers are studying the value of text messaging value in a clinical trial focused on improving diabetes management among a high-risk Hispanic patient population in San Diego County.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research revealed apps and messaging might help teens control their Type 1 diabetes.

Apps to aid in mental health

Tools for assessing, diagnosing and treatment mental health issues have been stymied due to potential harm or risk the tools caregivers believe could come into play. But as one psychiatry resident wrote in a blog post, even emerging apps that don’t hit the “gold standard” may prove viable.

The viewpoint may be grabbing more traction as telemedicine companies grow their mental health services.

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research revealed apps offering educational intervention, along with the ability to monitor and support positive behavior change, could lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Duke University launched a research app that aims to determine autism risk and help patients detect that condition and mental health issues early.

And biopharmaceutical company Pfizer is offering a free app to help patients manage depression and share their progress with physicians.

Apps for cardiac interventions

Boston Medical Center researchers began redesigning a popular diet plan, the Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension regimen, into a app offering to help patients better control and manage hypertension.

Apps for dental care, diagnostics, women's health and asthma

A University of Pittsburgh dental student conceived the DentaCom app, which promises to spur faster dental care and reduce unnecessary emergency room visits. The tools let users snap a photo, provide data and share with a dentist for assessment before heading to the ER.

The University of Washington developed an app to analyze and measure hemoglobin faster, easier and cheaper. Called HemaApp, it has proven to be as reliable as the more expensive finger sensor approach.

UNICEF partnered with Johnson & Johnson to create MomConnect and several additional digital tools that aim to provide better maternal health to mothers-to-be in South Africa and will serve as the foundation for an expanded software tool to boost literacy, as well. MomConnect is focused on boosting health and wellbeing as well as empowering women in South Africa and is the first integrated maternal health platform on the continent. Another app is helping humanitarian aid teams working in Syria and providing access to research and assistance.

Children’s Health in Texas said the My Asthma Pal app cut ED readmissions in half. The app allows for data sharing between patients and providers—the next step is to integrate the data it collects into the electronic medical record.

Even as mHealth apps have come into their own, there are still challenges. Measuring effectiveness and return on investment and getting patients not only to use mHealth platforms but to continue using them can be tricky.

Then there’s the overwhelming number of healthcare app choices. Nearly 100,000 new apps have been launched since the beginning of 2015, with 13,000 new publishers moving into the market over that same period. About 259,000 apps currently are available in the top app stores, according to a Research2Guidance report (PDF).

The mHealth app movement is being encouraged by the American Medical Association, which released new guidance last November about clinical mHealth apps that support patient-centered care delivery, care coordination and team-based communication. It’s aimed at fostering integration of digital health innovations into clinical practice.

The regulatory landscape has also shifted. In July, the Food and Drug Administration said mobile apps won’t fall under tough FDA review as long as they promote general wellness and present a low risk to users.