Efforts Underway to Vet Health Apps for Clinicians

There are an estimated 40,000 healthcare apps and, as The Innovator’s Prescription author Jason Hwang says, “a lot of junk.”

However, many more physicians are expected to be prescribing apps like pharmaceutical drugs—if they can trust them.

Happtique, a mobile health company, has an online catalog of several thousand yet-to-be-rated health, fitness, and medical apps. It plans to evaluate apps for performance, content and safety before “certifying” them.

Ben Chodor, Happtique chief executive officer, said certifying is not the same as rating.

“What’s better for one person might not be better for another. This is all about giving people choices,” he said.

Happtique, a subsidiary of the business arm of the Greater New York Hospital Association, is working with the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools to recruit clinicians to evaluate apps.

The company used librarians and clinicians to classify about 20,000 apps into more than 300 topic-specific categories related to healthcare profession, disease or specialty. It also developed a certification program to assess privacy, security, ease of use and content. The program will charge a $2,500-$3,000 fee to certify an app, and believes it can complete an evaluation in 30 days or less.

Luis Saldana, MD, Texas Health Resources (THR) associate chief medical information officer, said, “It’s the wild, wild west out there (in the app market). There is an emerging need for (certification).”

Saldana said physician app prescriptions have been growing “organically” for the past couple of years but it is not widespread yet. He said THR would consider broader use of health apps in patient care as part of its mobile health strategy, preferably including data from those apps into electronic health records.

Chodor said certification speed is important because of how quickly health apps are being created. He estimates the number has quadrupled in the past 24-30 months, and the rate of increase shows no signs of slowing down. About half of the apps being developed are for clinicians, with the balance aimed at consumers.

The market potential is enormous. About half of baby boomers who own smartphones said they would buy medical mobile apps, especially if they were recommended by a physician, according to research by Michigan-based Mitchell Research and Communications.

Meanwhile, physicians are becoming more comfortable with mobile devices. More than 8 out of 10 owned smartphones in 2011, according to Manhattan Research.

Happtique is likely to certify a handful of apps for each specialty in the near future to give clinicians a choice of quality products.

Happtique also is working with five U.S. hospitals to establish branded health app stores, using a cloud-based platform to organize the products in a user-friendly format.

Chodor believes insurers will be impressed by the cost effectiveness of apps, and will begin reimbursing patients for buying them and paying physicians to prescribe them. He said the key is a trusted platform such as Happtique for app validation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has formed a new workgroup to improve patient safety and promote innovation in health information technology, including mobile medical applications.

A 2012 investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that consumers are being scammed by “hucksters” selling apps that could “cure” conditions such as acne and alcoholism. Its review of 1,500 apps showed that more than 20 percent of apps claim to treat or cure medical problems, despite not following established medical guidelines or being clinically tested. The center said some could be considered dangerous.

Of the more than 200 apps analyzed by Ohio State researchers, about one third had no input from healthcare professionals and the amount of professional input into another third is unclear.

In a blog, California physician Leslie Kernisan speculated that clinicians would be motivated to prescribe apps in the same way they have prescribed drugs: because they were marketed to, someone like Happtique will make it easy to do so, or patients will request them. She said she would recommend clinicians prescribe them because it is likely to help patients reach health goals and fit well in medical-management plans.

WellDoc, which employs patient apps for its DiabetesManager system, said patients in a clinical trial were able to reduce significantly the blood sugar levels of diabetes patients.

Steve Jacob is editor of D Healthcare Daily and author of the book Health Care in 2020: Where Uncertain Reform, Bad Habits, Too Few Doctors and Skyrocketing Costs Are Taking Us. He can be reached at steve.jacob@dmagazine.com.


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