iPhone apps that could save your life

Developers create mobile apps that help consumers make better medical decisions

Move over games and make room for medicine. A growing number of developers are tapping into a treasure trove of U.S. government healthcare data and coming up with innovative iPhone apps that help consumers make better medical decisions.

Smartphones, tablets seen boosting mobile health

Here are three iPhone apps that point towards a future of patients having more medical data at their fingertips.

These smartphone applications were showcased at an event held this summer by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services when it launched its Community Health Data Initiative. The initiative is releasing federal healthcare data with a standard application programming interface for developers.

Modeled after the National Weather Service, the Community Health Data Initiative aims to create a public/private partnership that encourages developers to take reams of federal healthcare data and turn it into useful applications for patients, doctors, hospitals and public health officials.

The latest mobile apps are using the iPhone as a platform for two-way communications between patients and doctors designed to improve the nation's overall healthcare system.

"We're seeing a very exciting explosion in the number of small, personal devices as well as sensor networks and mobile phone apps that are dedicated to structuring, collecting and aggregating quality healthcare data," says David Van Sickle, president and CEO of healthcare start-up Reciprocal Sciences, which has created an asthma-related iPhone app. "We're moving to more of a participatory community health data collection environment, where patients will be contributing into this data and not only benefitting from it."

1. iTriage

Created by two emergency room physicians, iTriage http://www.itriagehealth.com/ is a free app for iPhones, Android, Blackberry and other Web-enabled devices. It provides patients with information about their symptoms and gives them advice about seeking medical attention for these symptoms. It also provides a list of nearby medical facilities including emergency rooms, hospitals, urgent care centers and doctors offices.

iTriage has more than 1 million providers of healthcare listed in the application, and it has attracted tens of thousands of users. Like white page listings, iTriage makes money be selling premier listings to hospitals, pharmacies and doctors offices.

"If you're on vacation in New York, and you think you've got strep throat, iTriage will help you figure out what you might have and whether you need to go to an emergency room, and if you do where it is based on your location," explains Jonathan White, vice president of sales and business development at Healthagen, a start-up that created iTriage.The goal of iTriage is to help consumers make appropriate and cost-effective decisions about when and where to seek medical attention.

"If we can help consumers -- no matter whether they have private insurance or public insurance -- by not having them default to the emergency room, then we can save the whole healthcare system money and make the system more efficient," White says.

Although iTriage was available before the Community Health Data Initiative was announced, White says he is excited about the prospects of integrating more government healthcare data into the application.

"As these mobile platforms get more and more robust, we have the ability to push more and more data out to patients. The more information that people have access to, the better medical decisions they will make," White says.

2. Asthmapolis

Asthmapolis uses a special GPS-enabled device that attaches to an inhaler and automatically records the time and location when asthma patients use their inhalers. This data is automatically transmitted to the patient's doctor, while aggregate data is available to asthma researchers and public health agencies.

Under development for two years by Reciprocal Sciences, Asthmapolis has a companion smart phone application that allows asthma patients to record and review when and where they used their inhalers.

The smart phone application "is not as elegant a solution as the inhaler device because it puts the burden back on the patient to record usage, but it has the benefit of being rapidly available to the millions of people with smart phones," says Van Sickle, who not only runs Reciprocal Sciences but is also a post-doctorate fellow a the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Van Sickle says the firm's iPhone app will help gather data from asthma patients that will help researchers.

"What we're aiming to do is expand the amount of surveillance data that we have about asthma by an order of magnitude," he says. "Even at the national and state level, the focus has primarily been on the really small number of asthma attacks that cause emergency room visits. There are many more asthma attacks that result in doctors' office visits, missed school and missed work. We're trying to capture some of that data."

Van Sickle says it's important for applications like Asthmapolis to be easy for patients with chronic illnesses to use. "We're trying to develop applications that don't add to the burden of having a chronic disease, but that make it less burdensome," he says.

Van Sickle says he's excited about the Community Health Data Initiative, but he warns that it is difficult to develop user-friendly applications like Asthmapolis.

"The folks in [Health and Human Services] are really doing some pretty amazing work as they are wrangling and encouraging efforts from the IT and software development communities," he says. "It's a great and stimulating model. But to build apps that have daily relevance and value for the individual is going to take a lot of work."

3. MedWatcher

MedWatcher is a free iPhone app that alerts patients about recalls or other news related to their medications while also allowing them to record side effects. MedWatcher will be available on the Apple iTunes store in August.

MedWatcher taps into the Food and Drug Administration's main drug alert system -- called MedWatch -- as well as other media sources. The application makes it easier for patients and doctors to track news about particular drugs.

"The FDA sends out a few dozen e-mails a day including recalls and drug alerts. It's too much information for any one individual to process on a daily basis," says Nabarun Dasgupta, co-developer of the MedWatcher application and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Global Public Health. "We wanted to streamline this, and we thought the iPhone was a good platform to bring the information back to the patient."

MedWatcher also streamlines the process that patients and doctors use to report side effects of medications to the FDA. The FDA's two-page paper MedWatch form takes patients anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours to fill out.

"We've taken that process down to five steps. It takes about 10 minutes," Dasgupta says. "Our healthcare system is predicated on the idea that consumers and physicians are reporting back to the FDA the side effects that they have experienced. The FDA is well aware that a very, very small fraction of drug events get reported. By streamlining the process, and putting it in the cloud, we hope to get more reports on drugs and to identify the adverse effects quicker. We're trying to get to a culture of personal responsibility and drug safety through this app."

Users of MedWatcher will be able to see reviews of medications and reports of side effects that are submitted by other patients.

In the future, Dasgupta would like to add more educational information for patients such as videos, pictures and tutorials to the application. He'd like to add a risk management component so that patients would be given extra information if, for example, they had to watch for a particular adverse effect in the first few weeks of taking a new medication.

"I'd like to have it be interactive, where the patient could ask questions and answers would be provided to the patient," Dasgupta says. "We intend for this to be a platform where that type of patient education could happen. We'd also like to have alert reminders for patients to take their medication and a way for them to notify their doctor if they skipped a dose."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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