Lifestyle and exercise

Merry Christmas and 'App-y' New Year

“FitFu wants to get you exercising at your desk,” states a headline in TechCrunch. “HealthyApps has launched an app to provide people with MRSA and C. difficile infection rates at their local hospitals,” says E-health Insider. And the BBC reports that there is now an app to help the speech impaired communicate.

Health applications, or “apps”, that you can download to smartphones are proliferating fast as the market for mobile computing booms. Some market analysts predict that 2011 will be the year that health goes mobile in the UK, suggesting that global usage will triple in the next 12 months alone.

In their report published last week, telecoms experts Pyramid Research suggest that going mobile has the potential to improve health by “breaking down the barriers of time and location”.

Indeed, mobile health tools are already proving popular, with Apple’s iTunes store listing more than 7,000 health and fitness apps, and users clocking up more than 200 million downloads to date. The tools range from simple trackers that measure your alcohol consumption to apps that claim to turn your phone into a stethoscope.

Denise Culver, author of last week’s telecoms report concluded that health apps are improving outcomes for patients and improving their access to healthcare. She said that the introduction of apps means that “patients can take ownership of the data and increase their responsibility for their own health”.

Below we explain how mobile health apps work and list some we think may be of interest to Behind the Headlines readers.

What is a mobile app?

An app is a small computer program that can be downloaded to a smartphone through an internet connection. They generally perform a specific function which is designed to entertain or make life easier. Health apps for the most part fall into one of three main areas:

  • Utility apps that help you find medical services. These often use a phone’s geo-location software to tell you where, for example, the nearest Accident and Emergency department is. There are apps in this category that also allow you to compare, contrast and comment on medical services.
  • Fitness apps that prompt and enable you to record and track measures of fitness or health such as blood pressure, weight, calorie intake and number of steps walked each day. Many of these apps double as games in order to provide a motivational element.
  • Specialist apps aimed at niche consumer groups. Apps in this category are often made specifically for health professionals or people with permanent disabilities or long-term illnesses and are designed to make their lives easier.

How much do they cost?

Many mobile apps are entirely free and come with no strings attached. It’s simply a matter of downloading them to your smartphone and using them as you see fit. Others are charged for, with prices ranging from around 50p to £5.

What sort of mobile phone do I need to use health apps?

You need a smartphone with an internet connection to get the most of health apps. Different apps are made for different brands of phone, with mobile phone companies generally offering a website where all the apps available for their phones can be viewed. Apple’s iPhone was the first into the market and so currently has the largest number of apps available.

Are all mobile health apps reliable?

Most are technically reliable in that they work, but their accuracy is largely dependent on where they source their background data from. Always look carefully before downloading to understand where their data and algorithms have been derived from.

Apps you may be interested in taking a look at:

Utility apps:

  • Wellnote is a multi-functional health tool developed by Lord Darzi and a team of doctors from Imperial College. It offers a range of useful features, such as reminding you to take your medication or helping you find a local dentist. You can also give feedback and ratings on the health services you receive and read the latest medical news collected from a number of sources. Cost: free
  • Healthy Apps MRSA and C. Diff guide shows the changing rate of infections in hospitals across England, displaying them using clear graphs. While this new app is in its infancy, it features clear, simple use of important data. Cost: £0.59
  • The NHS Drink Tracker is NHS Choices’ phone tool to help you follow how much you drink over time, analysing your habits to provide tailored feedback. Cost: free

Fitness apps

  • The FitFu app launched last week in Apple’s iTunes store is one of the most sophisticated yet in the fitness sphere and aims to get users exercising throughout the day. It’s fun and uses the movement detector in the iPhone to record your exercise of choice. It then allows you to compare and contrast your progress with other users, adding a competitive element. “It’s like having a personal trainer in your pocket to remind and motivate you,” say the product’s makers. “Our aim is to get people exercising in short bursts throughout the day – on the train to work, in the office, anywhere.” Cost: £0.59
  • Walkmeter is a versatile pedometer app that not only counts distance and steps walked, but can also factor in things like walking uphill when working out the number of calories you burn. It can also be set to analyse other activities, such as cycling and skiing. Cost: £2.99
  • Weight Watchers Mobile UK is a free app with a range of features to help you eat well, plan your meals and control your weight. The app provides a free recipe each day, helps create healthier shopping lists and shows the nearest Weight Watchers meetings. Cost: free, with advanced features available to Weight Watchers members

Specialist apps

  • Medscape by WebMD is a comprehensive app designed for healthcare professionals. It has dozens of functions, including highlighting the suitability of medicines and providing guides to a range of procedures. It also provides useful access to online learning material. Cost: free
  • Lakeland’s Easiest Walks is a digital guidebook detailing a range of country walks specifically chosen for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility. It provides a mix of interesting background detail and practical advice. Cost: £5.99
  • PubMed Library helps you find and catalogue research from PubMed, the definitive online research library featuring citations from millions of medical and scientific studies. Cost £5.99

NHS Attribution