Exec Health: Good raps for health apps

Technology has been given bad rap as contributor to the western world’s expanding girth. We spend an increasing amount of time sitting and less time doing. We text, tweet, email or post to our friends and colleagues, rather than meeting for face-to-face chat.
But it’s cloud with silver lining. Mobile and internet technology is opening up huge opportunities in health. Increasingly, governments, scientists, health organisations and businesses are looking at how the power of social media and our devotion to mobile devices can be harnessed to make us fitter, healthier and better informed.
Smartphones now account for over 30 percent of the New Zealand mobile market – with pre-Christmas predictions by telecommunications company Ericsson that figure would rise to 45 percent in 2013. The company also estimated that 62 percent of New Zealand mobile and tablet device owners are currently using ‘apps’ (specially designed software programmes).
Of course an app can never replace consultation with your doctor, but some new technologies may be useful in complementing the traditional doctor-patient relationship.
Internationally, the most popular health-related apps are calorie, diet and exercise trackers, such as MyFitnessPal, and sources of verified health information, such as WebMD and MedHelp.
A rapidly evolving area is the use of smartphone apps for personal health monitoring. There are number of heart rate apps available, most of which work
by detecting pulsating blood flow through placing finger over smartphone’s camera lens. recently designed app also measures heart rhythm, respiration rate and blood oxygen levels by the same method. newer development still is an app that measures heart rate by using the phone’s camera to detect the minute colour changes in person’s face which are caused by heartbeat.
The next frontier – and rapidly becoming reality – is the adaptation of smartphones or tablets into medical devices through the use of attachments or special covers. An app that uses peripheral attachment to transform smartphone into small, portable ultrasound machine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2011, and is designed to be used by doctors working in remote areas or in the field.
I’ve written in the past about the big advantage peer support brings in workplace-based health initiatives – the principle being it’s difficult to tuck into burger when the rest of the team are lunching from the salad bar. Now, apps and websites are harnessing the supportive (and sometimes competitive) nature of shared health goal by tracking progress among group of users.
The Stickk.com site takes public accountability one step further by enabling users to create “contract” with the site to stick to certain health goal – with the person able to place monetary bet on their ability to meet the commitment and designate “referee” to monitor their progress. If they fail to reach their goal in specific timeframe, the “bet” goes to charity or someone else designated by the user.
Conversely, the internet also offers the advantage of privacy for health conditions people may find difficult to broach. The Mental Health Foundation’s youth depression site “The Lowdown” includes chat room where people can post and have their queries answered anonymously, as well as contacts for “live” support services.
As long as we continue to let our legs – rather than our fingers – do the walking, the rapid evolution of health apps and websites could be one way to help re-programme modern lifestyles for the better. M

Peter Tynan is chief executive of Southern Cross Health Society.

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