Consumers Circumvent Physicians When Using Mobile Health Apps

Despite an explosion in consumer use of mobile health and fitness applications, doctors continue to be hesitant to recommend mHealth apps to their patients. There are more than 43,000 health apps available on Apple's iTunes store alone, but due to a lack of evidence of the clinical benefits of these apps physicians remain wary.

In the absence of research on the impact of mobile technologies on health outcomes, in particular, doctors are not convinced that consumers can change health behavior or improve disease management though their use of apps. Due to this reluctance on the part of physicians to embrace mHealth, consumers are cutting out medical professionals as they pursue mobile technology in their own pursuit of improved health results--creating a vicious circle. 

A new study, which surveyed 1,000 consumers who use or plan to use health and fitness mobile apps, found that while 70 percent of respondents use apps on a daily basis to track calorie intake and monitor physical activities, just 40 percent actually share their data and insights with their doctors. What's more, 34 percent of mobile health and fitness app users in the survey indicated that they would increase their use of apps if their physicians actively recommended them. 

"Our study shows there's a huge opportunity for medical professionals, pharmaceutical companies and health organizations to use mobile to drive positive behavior change and, as a result, better patient outcomes," said Scott Snyder, president and chief strategy officer at mobile engagement vendor Mobiquity.

However, physicians have a lot of ground to make up when it comes to gaining credibility in their patients' eyes vis-à-vis mHealth. A 2013 survey of 2,000 U.S. patients by healthcare marketing and advertising agency Digitas Health found that 90 percent of patients would accept the offer of a mobile app, while only 66 percent of respondents would accept prescription medicine from their doctor. 

In another December 2012 survey of 1,003 U.S. adults commissioned by Royal Philips Electronics, a quarter of respondents indicated that they trust symptom checker websites, symptom check mobile apps or home-based vital sign monitors as much as they do their physician. Moreover, an equal number often use these resources instead of going to the doctor.

At the same time, consumer trust in mobile technology increases the potential risk for misdiagnosis and mistreatment of disease. For instance, several popular smartphone apps designed to evaluate photographs of skin lesions to determine the likelihood of malignancy are not accurate, according to a 2013 study published in JAMA Dermatology. The study found the performance of these apps in assessing melanoma risk to be "highly variable," with three of four apps in the study incorrectly classifying 30 percent or more of melanomas as "unconcerning."

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