Do health apps really have the capacity to help the healthy?

  • TECH
  • Monday, 20 Apr 2015

PROS AND CONS: Health apps are all the rage, but what are their benefits? A report in the British Medical Journal offers two views.

Health apps and connected health devices are all the rage at the moment. Do they, however, present any benefits to users who aren't sick? Two doctors each presented their points of view in a recently published report. 

Diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, weight loss... there seem to be almost as many smartphone health apps today as there are diseases. The mobile health market is booming, but are these applications all useful, especially for people who aren't sick? 

This is the question that two doctors attempted to answer, publishing their conclusions on April 14 in the British Medical Journal, each offering individual, and contrasting, responses. 

Pros: Health apps and connected devices do no harm and have health benefits

Iltifat Husain, editor-in-chief and founder of and Emergency Medicine Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, sought to learn if healthy users could truly benefit from health apps. His response was affirmative. 

Certain apps have true potential, especially ones geared towards weight loss. They can contribute in reducing morbidity and mortality rates by encouraging physical activity. They can also help people to correlate personal decisions with health outcomes, and they can help doctors to hold patients accountable for their behaviour. 

Dr Husain notes that scientific studies have confirmed the accuracy of connected health devices like the Jawbone wristbone or the FitBit that count your steps and sum up your daily physical activity. And these devices, though they don't in themselves improve physical performance, don't do any harm. 

"If we wait for scientific studies to prove the benefit of apps, we're going to get left behind – not only by our patients who are already using them but also by the industry dictating which tools people should use," he explained in conclusion. 

Cons: They are useless and a source of anxiety  

Des Spence, general practitioner in Glasgow, Scotland, has a different view of things and responds in the negative. 

While most of these apps may be harmless, he states, they are also useless. Furthermore, this technologically advanced society in which health is omnipresent, which counts its heartbeats, its steps and calories, checks that it's breathing well and that its food is healthy has become "avoidant, fearful, insecure, and worried about anything and everything." 

These apps and devices are untested and unscientific, according to the doctor who believes that "diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people." 

Dr Spence also fears that the human body will only continue to be seen as a "simple machine." Death and disease is a "lottery outside our control," and health apps won't change anything. In fact, he concludes that "these new technologies will serve only to fuel this anger and resentment further." – AFP Relaxnews 

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