Do We Really Need Healthcare Applications?

Do We Really Need Healthcare Applications?

Imagine that you never have to go to the hospital again. Feeling under the weather? Your doctor is a video call away, you can send a picture of your throat and get it analyzed, your prescription will be ready in a few minutes and delivered to your home. Or let’s say you need a check-up. You do not need to make an appointment or go and fill in forms and wait in a line. Only by using an app on your phone, the test kits are sent to your door. That slightly worrying mole on your back? Why not take a picture of it daily and let the algorithm do its magic to ease your mind or tell you to make an appointment with your doctor? These might sound like futuristic ideas. The thing is, we are not talking about the future, these are all happening now. 

The term digital health entered our lives around 2015 with the development of several health applications and devices for tracking, monitoring and measuring our health. However, the transformation of healthcare has already started in the 70s [1]. Digital health is now used as an umbrella term for many different fields such as telehealth, mobile health (mHealth), and wearable devices. There are a lot of applications and devices out there trying to introduce a new generation healthcare system. From pace trackers to surgical robots, biometric measurements to mobile-based imaging techniques, digital health paints a promising picture of the future health applications. 

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With the advancements in technology, especially with the increased importance of artificial intelligence (AI), we observe rapid growth in the digital health market. There is no doubt that with the COVID-19, this development has only accelerated due to the global need for digitization. Some of the benefits of mHealth applications are the possible decrease in hospital visits of the patients and the availability of different health services at any time. These aspects are especially important for people living in districts with limited access to healthcare services. However, to establish a healthcare system with the usage of digital services, the service itself needs to be reliable.  

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A vast number of companies and researchers are working towards building a digitized version of health services to provide faster and cheaper healthcare. However, there are also somewhat problematic health applications available, such as the ones that are claiming that they can provide treatments. These types of practices can do more harm than they help. The idea of introducing digital health applications should not be replacing healthcare workers or hospitals completely. Instead, they should support the system with intentions such as decreasing the workload, providing an easier patient tracking system, collecting more data for research. 

Another concern is the privacy of users. People are becoming more and more skeptical of how much data the apps collect and what they do with them. Some health applications are known to send out the personal data of the users to third parties due to limited guidance on mHealth services [2]. These types of problems can create a general distrust against any application. It is an especially important problem since these applications are dealing with people’s health. What about the reliability of technology behind these? What will happen if AI classifies your rash as a not-to-worry, home treatment symptom, but it turns out as skin cancer? Does the blame go to the developer of the app or the patient who chose to believe it? These problems raise the question of how well health applications are regulated. Are they even regulated at all?

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At the moment, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) performs a risk-based assessment of digital health services. By defining several criteria, FDA groups and defines digital health services based on features they provide [3]. A useful and must-check tool is the guideline Federal Trade Commission (FTC) produced together with the FDA to explain the laws to mobile health app developers [4]. These regulations sound promising for the future. However, with the increasing number of technologies, we still have a long way to go. Each day, more and more health applications are available to download. What is lacking now is a standardized system to evaluate the safety of these applications.

So what does the future look like for digital health applications? With the exciting features they provide, we surely do need healthcare applications in our future. Now it is time to discuss the safety regulations behind them and how to apply them effectively.

Resources

[1] Meister S, Deiters W, Becker S. Digital health and digital biomarkers – Enabling value chains on health data. Current Directions in Biomedical Engineering; 2016. 2. 10.1515/cdbme-2016-0128. 

[2] Steinhubl SR, Muse ED, Topol EJ. The emerging field of mobile health. Science Translational Medicine; 2015. 7-283, pp. 283rv3, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaa3487

[3] Food and Drug Administration. Digital Health.  https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/digital-health (2020).

[4] Federal Trade Commission. Mobile Health Apps Interactive Tool. https://www.ftc. gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/mobile-health-apps-interactive-tool (2016).

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Öykü BULCA

Science Team
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