Medicine and mobile phones start having more and more connections than one would think at first glance. Statistics come in handy to explain the nature and extent of these connections. Here are some useful numbers:
- 90% of physicians use a mobile phone or a tablet in their daily activities;
- By 2012, there were already 40,000 health-related apps available in app stores;
- 70% of people worldwide would be willing to pay for a reliable mobile healthcare application;
- 11% of adult US smartphone owners have already installed an app which monitors or tracks their health.
These numbers, focusing on both ends of the issue – medical professionals and patients – indicate that there is a potentially huge market for mobile apps. However, developers are still reticent when it comes to tackling such projects. The main problems? Liability and regulations.
The Healthcare Industry and Mobile Apps – A Fragile Alliance
How much can doctors and patients rely on mobile apps? A lot – as reality shows it. Telemedicine is now a reality: doctors monitor their patients’ health from remote locations. Likewise, diabetic patients can monitor blood sugar level with the help of apps, and cardiac patients can monitor heartbeats and pulse with a dedicated app, as well.
Healthcare regulating government bodies have already started taking into account the existence of this type of mobile app and creating compliance rules for them. These rules are not harmonized at a worldwide level, nor is the overall level of regulation for mobile apps which track and monitor health.
However, medical mobile apps seem to be the clear path of the future. Developers and healthcare providers can no longer ignore the countless possibilities and benefits of mobile apps for providing better healthcare to patients worldwide.
Yet, we must all heed and find a solution for the main challenges which appear from the initial phases of designing a medical mobile app and until deployment. Here they are:
1. Data Security
The recent WannaCry ransomware attacks on medical facilities’ computer networks show how fragile digital data is. If computers and servers can be attacked and their security protocols breached, it can also happen for mobile apps.
In fact, the risk is even higher because these apps are installed on private individuals’ phones, and these individuals may or may not be careful or knowledgeable in keeping their devices and personal data safe.
2. Ease of Use
Setting up complex security protocols for a mobile app has its downside – slow and difficult operation, with various levels of authentication. Most users would find such an app a nuisance rather than a useful tool. The functionality of the app can also be affected by the user’s phone – developers need to take into account that many people have older, entry-level phone models.
Ease of use is also related to the user’s level of literacy in medical terms. Providing raw data with medical terms attached to them will prove useful for physicians, but they will mean next to nothing for the patients. The user interface must take into account the need to translate the readings into simple, layman terms and graphic presentations.
3. Mobile App = Medical Device?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a regulation in 2011 which stated that “a small subset of mobile medical apps that may impact on the performance or functionality of currently regulated medical devices and as such, will require FDA oversight”. At the same time, the UK-based Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) stated that if a mobile app contains a module which performs calculations or interprets data readings, that app is a medical device.
There is slippery ground around these two definitions, because it is easy to consider the green color of graphics for a blood sugar level as an interpretation of results, for instance. To avoid any potential liability, every medicine app development team should include an expert on FDA-related regulatory aspects.
4. Patient Data Privacy
Apps collect and transmit data. Medical apps collect patient data – sensitive data concerning their medical condition, state of health and identity. This type of information is strictly regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The end customer who will own and manage the app needs to insure industry standard security for the storage solution where app users’ data will be stored.
The role of developers is to make app owners aware of the level of protection currently available for various storage options (cloud, server-based) and assist them in implementing the best practices in this respect.
5. Difficult Data Migration from Obsolete EHR
The electronic health record (EHR) does not consist of a uniform set of software solutions, recently updated and able to offer the latest functionalities (such as mobile app integration). Many healthcare providers, both private practices and hospitals, use legacy software, making it extremely difficult to merge databases, extract information and introduce it into an app or export app data into them.