More than a million health and wellness apps are available from the Apple and Google app stores, with more being added daily. With so many health-related apps to choose from, how can you decide which ones you might want to use and how they might improve your health?
First, consider what type of app you are looking for. Overall, you can break health-related apps down into four broad categories: general health and wellness apps, apps that help manage your overall health or a particular chronic condition, telehealth and telemedicine apps, and the newest category, digital therapeutics apps, which are approved by the FDA be used for the treatment of specific conditions.
“Our day-to-day behaviors drive most of our risk for disease and the costs associated with that,” says Daniel Kraft, MD, founder and chair of Exponential Medicine, a program that explores developing technologies and their potential in medicine and health care. “And we now have an explosion of new tools to help measure and improve our healthy behaviors. The first Fitbit only launched in 2009, and wearables are now ubiquitous and can measure almost every aspect of our activity, physiology, and even mental health.”
Health and Wellness Apps
The vast array of general health and wellness apps available include nutritional apps like LoseIt and MyFitnessPal that help you track your eating and exercise habits and lose weight, fitness apps like Strava, Fitplan, and Aaptiv, sleep trackers like Sleep Cycle, and mental wellness apps like Calm, Headspace, and Happify.
“As wearables evolve to be pretty commonly used by most people, many wellness apps like these can communicate with your wearables,” says health care futurist Rafael Grossman, MD, a surgeon at Portsmouth Regional Hospital in New Hampshire who performed the first Google Glass surgery. “And data from those third-party apps can be seamlessly consolidated into your Apple Health Kit or Google Fit, to give you a complete report on your health and activity, all in one place.”
Health Management Apps
These apps typically offer general health management tools like medication trackers and reminders, as well as disease-specific functions like blood glucose tracking for people with diabetes or reporting bleeding events for people with hemophilia. Many of these apps can also be set up to share information directly with your doctor.
If you’re looking for an app to help you manage a specific chronic condition, start by asking the doctor who treats you for that condition. Another good source of recommendations would be with national organizations that advocate for people with your condition. For example, My MS Manager is a free mobile phone application created by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (MSAA) that allows users to track their MS symptoms, create reports for medical professionals, and get medication reminders.
If you get care at a major hospital or medical center, they may have one or more apps of their own that help you manage your visits, prescriptions, and electronic health record. Many health insurance companies also offer apps to patients who are enrolled in one of their plans that allow them to manage their health benefits with a few taps and swipes, and even incentivize healthy behavior by offering rewards like gift cards.
Many of these apps can also integrate with wearable technologies like a Fitbit or Apple Watch, or with other home digital health devices like blood pressure cuffs, smart thermometers, and smart scales. “Apps are now blending with home diagnostic platforms,” Kraft says. “In part due to the need for more remote health care visits during to COVID, people have become more comfortable with using things like connected blood pressure cuffs and pulse oximeters. The big value is helping you intelligently manage disease processes, especially chronic ones.”
Telehealth and Telemedicine Apps
Apps like Doctor on Demand, Teladoc, GoodRx Care, Talkspace, and Zocdoc can connect you directly with a doctor for a virtual appointment or help you seek out and book local health care providers for in-person visits. More and more hospitals and health systems, like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, are also including the ability to participate in virtual visits in their own apps.
“The pandemic dramatically accelerated the use of virtual visits, and I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to pre-pandemic levels of in-person health care visits, as patients and physicians are discovering the compelling convenience and efficacy,” Kraft says. “Even before virtual Zoom or FaceTime with clinicians, we’ve had ever-smarter chatbots that can help discern symptoms and triage problems via apps like these effectively at lower cost.”
Digital Therapeutics Apps
In 2017, the FDA approved the first of a flood of new digital therapeutics for disease treatment, a program called reSET from Pear Therapeutics, which uses mobile assessments and interventions to treat substance use disorders. It’s been followed by more than 200 others to date, including BlueStar, a personalized coaching app that has been found to lower blood glucose levels for adults living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and Kaia Health, a physical therapy app that was shown in clinical trials to significantly reduce pain, anxiety, stress, and depression in people with musculoskeletal pain.
“We’re now in a time where the hardware and software have evolved into an ecosystem, with apps, smartphones, wearables, and AI algorithms,” Grossmann says. “This is giving us better answers and more personalized recommendations for behavior changes that make sense from a medical point of view and can produce real improvements in health.”
Kraft predicts that soon, your doctor may prescribe an app rather than, or in addition to, a new medication or another type of treatment. “It’s a golden age for these digital solutions,” he says. “There are so many options available to help you optimize your physical and mental wellness, find diseases before they become significant, or manage complex diseases ranging from pneumonia to cancer.”
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