The British government is telling doctors to promote health-related apps. Some experts believe it will be helpful to promote fitness, but also other diseases that require monitoring, like diabetes.
Family doctors usually prescribe drugs, but in the United Kingdom, they're now being encouraged to prescribe smartphone apps to their patients as well.
Last month, the British minister of health told general practitioners to encourage their patients to use free or cheap health related apps. The aim: to help people manage their own health and save them unnecessary visits to the doctor.
The new move is the result of an effort by the British National Health Service to modernize its health coverage. After all, nearly half of Britons now have a smartphone. That's more than in any other European country, according to the British telecoms regulator Ofcom.
Last year, Minister of Health Andrew Lansley asked patients and doctors to nominate their favorite health-related apps, which would then be recommended by the NHS.
“What we want to know is: what do you think?" he said in a 2011 speech. "Whether you're a clinician working in the NHS or a patient in the NHS - what are the apps that you use, what are the ideas you see through our website which you think will make the biggest benefit to treating patients or being a patient?”
Recently, Lansley announced a list of nearly 500 approved apps, which family doctors can now prescribe to their patients. These include a food allergy app which allows you to scan bar codes on supermarket products to see if they contain dangerous ingredients.
There's also an app from the charity Diabetes UK to help the nearly 3 million diabetic Britons manage their condition.
“The app enables the person with diabetes to input data such as their blood glucose levels, the amount of carbohydrates that they eat, insulin that they administer," explained Deepa Khatri, clinical advisor at Diabetes UK, in an interview with DW.
"And then they can track all of this data, and they can adjust their eating accordingly - it's a tool basically to allow them to manage their diabetes more effectively.”
Matt Cox has had type 1 diabetes for more than twenty years. His son is also a type 1 diabetic. An app like this would be of great help for both of them, he told DW.
“If you want to be healthy with diabetes you've got to keep on top of it," he said.
"For my son, who is also type 1 diabetic, we do keep quite strict records - how much insulin we put in, how much carbohydrates he's had. He can get that on an iPad with a WiFi facility, because he hasn't got a phone yet - he's only nine - but it's something we could potentially look at. And then he could take some responsibility for actually inputting his own records and and data.”
If enough people do embrace health apps, experts argue that this move could save the NHS time and money. Last year, an Imperial College London study found that a quarter of people who use health apps and the NHS information website said they visited their GP less frequently as a result.
So what do GPs themselves make of all this?
“Certainly in terms of some of our routine stuff - weight management, smoking cessation - where you can get some interaction with the patient without necessarily having them come, sit down, have an appointment," explained Dr. Graham Parker, a GP at the Woodley Health Centre near Manchester. "So from our point of view it is more convenient, and I would imagine from the patients it's much more convenient than having to sit in our waiting room for a while.”
The apps can be used on Android phones or iPhones
But in our bright new world of mobile information technology, there are some words of warning from doctors like Jeremy Parker, who also practices in Manchester.
After all, new apps are emerging which work with real medical equipment, such as a blood pressure monitor from an American company. It plugs straight into a smartphone or tablet, and allows the patient to store a plethora of data about his or her own health.
But giving patients more and more control is not always a good thing, noted Dr. Parker.
“There's a tendency, we find, particularly with people with diabetes, to become fixed on the numbers," he told DW. "Possibly to the detriment of other factors they should be considering about their lifestyle, or the way that they handle their diabetes. Because as with any figures you can manipulate them yourself to make them look right - and that wouldn't necessarily be good control of your condition.”
Author: Lars Bevanger, Manchester
Editor: Cyrus Farivar