Cautious app-etite for health helpers

17:00, Apr 11 2014

Staying healthy via your mobile is a rapidly expanding multibillion-dollar industry. But do phone alerts scolding you for a sneaky smoke really work?

Not feeling so great? There's an app for that. Whether you're browsing the supermarket shelves for a healthy cereal or sitting at home staring depressively at the wall, there are hundreds of mobile phone applications claiming to help.

Some experts predict that within five years, apps will be ingrained in our healthcare system. You will leave the doctor's office with not only a prescription for that nasty rash but an app connecting you to a online community of rash sufferers, rash experts, maybe even a rash-themed game.

But are health apps good for you or are they just another digital distraction, like a medically themed Angry Birds?

Wellington start-up Social Code specialises in working with health organisations to change unhealthy behaviour through mobile apps and websites.

Its app Goalpost has been tweaked to connect and support communities to quit smoking and drinking and improve their diet.


The app is similar to a Facebook newsfeed, with users posting craving confessions, often followed by a flood of supportive "hang in there" comments. It also include games to keep you going and links connecting users to health professionals.

The company is now trying to raise money for a depression app called Code Blue, in which users can hit a "panic button" that sends an intervention alert to their support group instantly.

Social Code founder Siobhan Bulfin, who has a background in social marketing with health organisations, said she started the company after her sister was told she had breast cancer.

She watched her sister go online for help only to get conflicting advice from other well-meaning cancer patients with no clear authoritative voice.

Bulfin said the company was working with health providers in the United States, where apps were being used to connect communities of drug-users or those with diseases.

Insurers were using them to reduce costs - healthier people make fewer claims - and drug companies to remind people to take their medicine.

Some doctors in New Zealand were already prescribing apps to stay connected to patients between visits, she said.

But the uses may be far wider, particularly when attached to wearable medical devices.

Some pundits predict that soon your doctor may be able to read most of your vital signs remotely through information provided to your phone.

Much of the technology is already there. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy S5 phone, released in New Zealand yesterday, even has an in-built heart monitor.

But while billions of dollars are now being poured into mobile apps, it is still not clear if they really improve your health.

The US Food and Drug Administration recently raised concerns about health apps and now regulates many of them, like any other medical device.

Dr Karen Day, health infomatics programme director at Auckland University, said most health apps were still not tested rigorously and it was hard for users to pick the helpful from the gimmicky.

Robyn Whittaker, at the National Institute for Health Innovation, was also sceptical and said often text message were more practical for reaching patients.

Social Code, for instance, said it tested all its apps with patients before releasing them, and measured their success.

The Ministry of Health is currently pushing better online patient access to medical information. But so far it has barely dipped its toes into the mobile health apps market, as it waits for more evidence.

Doctors, app designers and academics all seem to agree that mobile apps could be useful but only if patients are put before the technology.

Chris Masters is a Lower Hutt GP and also acts as medical adviser for Social Code.

He said apps could help pave a new way of interacting with patients in the face of rising health costs and flat funding.


1 Symptom Checker, Medibank (backed by Ministry of Health), free: A more authoritative Doctor Google. You can tap on the chosen body part of a green, smiling silhouette, pick a health problem, and receive advice about what to do. For instance, if you're vomiting blood, you should call 111 now.

2 Foodswitch, The National Institute for Health Innovation, Auckland University, and the George Institute for Global Health, free: This app uses your phone to scan supermarket barcodes and produces a traffic light-style health reading (red being "less healthy", orange "okay" and green healthy). In a test run, the app didn't recognise my soup or cereal but had a low opinion of my muesli bars, suggesting I try something else.

3 Goalpost and Drink Smart, Social Code, free: The Goalpost apps and website look like a Facebook clone focused solely on quitting smoking. Smokers can post a comment about progress and struggles and receive support from online friends and experts. They can also complete challenges, designed to keep them engaged. Drink Smart is a similar app for curbing drinking.

4 Mood Diary, Phobic Trust, free: Designed for people with anxiety, depression or phobias, the app allows you to track your moods against your exercise, sleep and diet. This information can then be used later to pinpoint triggers for negative feeling.

5 St John NZ app, free: A quick reference in an emergency, the app gives a step-by-step guide to helping someone in medical trouble, including checking their breathing, and a video tutorial for administering CPR. It even emits a beep to moderate CPR timing.

The Dominion Post