The mobile health (mHealth) movement continues to gain steam in the unpredictable way common to new technology. Today consumers can choose from more than 165,000 health apps on the market, but only 36 apps are responsible for nearly half of all downloads, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informaticsi. The most popular tools promote general health: fitness/exercise, food/nutrition, and weight loss. Of the consumers who do use health apps, only 7 percent are using them to actually manage their health conditionsii. But is mHealth making a difference in oncology?
Increasing focus on cancer apps
A 2013 study identified 295 mobile apps focused on cancer, and those apps had a wide variety in purpose and functionalityiii. The predominant purpose: to raise general awareness and education about cancer. Only 3.7 percent of those apps aimed to support disease management.
With the proliferation of mobile apps and wearable tech like FitBit and iWatch, that could change – rapidly. Since entering the healthcare space, Apple has introduced three mHealth platforms: HealthKit for tracking personal health data, ResearchKit for gathering patient-supplied data in clinical trials, and, most recently, CareKit for helping patients manage their healthiv. And although medication reminder apps are already on the market, new apps may take a “gamified” approach, applying elements of games to adherence to specific drug regimens such as oral chemotherapyv.
As mobile technology becomes more accepted, even expected, oncology app use will certainly increase. The issue some physicians worry about is whether patients will seek out apps (much like Internet-based cancer information) rather than their medical teams for specific health advice.
The critical issue of accountability
That worry may be well-founded because the accuracy and value of many apps have come into question. For example, three apps that claim to identify malignant melanoma lesions incorrectly classified 30 percent of lesions as benignvi. Even apps that simply provide health information on cancer are not entirely trustworthy. While the FDA does exert regulatory authority over medical apps that may be considered medical devices (for example, an electronic stethoscope or a scan transmitter for diagnosing disease), many health-focused apps do not qualify as medical devices and therefore avoid regulatory reviewvii. The National Institutes of Health is pursuing ways to validate mobile health technologies in the next five yearsviii. MIT’s Hacking Medicine program is taking on the exhaustive task of reviewing and vetting apps with digital and medical expertsix.
What should oncology providers keep in mind about digital apps and tools?
- Watch for more focus on specific conditions and types of cancer.
- Reviews on app sites may not be reliable. Look for credible sources, and use good clinical judgment about which apps to recommend or use.
- Always check for assurances of accuracy, functionality, and privacy.
- Not all health apps are clinically focused. Don’t overlook the benefit of apps that offer practical support for managing life with cancer.
- Consider suggesting direct-to-patient clinical trial apps to grow the body of knowledge on cancer symptoms, treatment side effects, and demographics.