Smartphones and medicine: Why your doctor isn’t ready to prescribe you a health app

If you’ve got an iPhone 6, you’ll likely know that it comes with a built in Health app, which tracks how far you walk or run each day, as well as how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. I felt slightly smug to discover that I walk or run 5km a day on average, and climb 18 flights of stairs, just through commuting to work and not having a car to drive at weekends.

So when I see my GP and he asks how much exercise I do, and I say not much, a look at the data on my iPhone would tell him that actually I am fairly active.

However, even though this data is more reliable than my assessment of my own fitness, new research suggests that doctors are less than willing to recommend monitoring apps to their patients, and the UK is behind the rest of the world when it comes to using smartphone technology in public health.

start quote

I wouldn’t expect doctors to be prescribing apps in the near future – there is a long way to go

final quote

While 43 per cent of UK doctors agree that mobile apps could be a ‘game-changer’ in improving health outcomes in patients, only 33 per cent said they are likely to recommend a health app in future, according to data from Cello Health Insight. But in the US, 43 per cent of doctors said they would recommend smartphone apps.

Health and fitness and medical apps make up 11 per cent of the 100 most popular paid-for UK apps on iTunes – not bad when you consider that most of the rest are games such as Minecraft and Angry Birds  – and the market for the sector is expected to reach $23bn by 2017. It is clear that people are using smartphones to monitor their health, so why aren’t they becoming part of GPs’ armoury?

The problem is, not everyone has one. “When you ask [doctors] about the barriers that exist, at the moment they are seeing that there isn’t a universality of the use of smartphones among the population.

“They want as easy a job as possible and they are working with protocols and to suggest you do one thing for one patient, and one for another [means] there is less universality,” explains Paul Mannu, behavioural insights director at Cello Health Insight. Almost a third of the doctors Cello surveyed said that the biggest barrier to recommending apps is that not all patients have smartphones.

Doctors are also wary of the accuracy of data collected by smartphone apps and 15 per cent say that patients don’t use them consistently. “Doctors have fairly entrenched monitoring systems on their desktops, and if data that comes from health apps is to be of any use it has to integrate with those health reporting systems,” says Mannu.

“For doctors and nurses, their mantra is evidence-based, they want evidence that these things work and benefit the patient… I wouldn’t expect doctors to be prescribing apps in the near future – there is a long way to go. There seems to be very little evidence that it’s in the mindset of the physician in the context of disease management.”

However, government pushes into digital technology to improve treatment mean that apps may soon be integrated into the NHS, Mannu suggests. “The government has a platform for greater digital integration in the next few years to help ease the burden of care, and as the government starts to push this we may start to see greater use of these apps.”

Another reason doctors don’t suggest apps is that they simply haven’t thought about doing so, according to a BMJ survey last year, even though nearly 93 per cent of doctors and 53 per cent of nurses said they found smartphones ‘very useful’ or ‘useful’ when using them for their jobs.

When apps are recommended by doctors, they tend to be for diet and weight loss, general health and fitness or stopping smoking.