By Andrew Jones, Marketing Director, Multitone

Mobile apps have revolutionised the way in which many of us live our lives. From the workplace to our private lives, having a dedicated app is an ideal way to access and share information with other interested parties. Despite their undoubted usefulness, apps do have their limitations - which isn’t so much of a problem when it comes non-crucial functions (such as social media) but it is more of a concern when it comes more vital sectors such as healthcare. Whilst regulation can make the development of such software more difficult, there are strong arguments for greater controls for apps that may be relied upon to provide important healthcare functions and could potentially put people at risk if they fail in their delivery.

There are three main areas in which apps could be utilised in the healthcare sector – firstly the monitoring and reporting of health conditions and medication administration with regards to treatment. Secondly, an app can be used for vital communications between members of a healthcare team, including records and data collection. Thirdly, apps can be used to assess patient feedback on services to aid performance improvements and provide patient information. The degree by which accuracy can vary is important between each of these applications and therefore the level of regulation may need to alter to find the right balance between securing safety and opening the field up for app development.

Applications that monitor healthcare conditions are arguably the most potentially risky applications to cater for, as people’s lives would be dependent on the integrity and reliability of the app. There are over 13,000 medical apps available across the major mobile device platforms and yet only 103 of these can show they are recognised by the relevant regulatory board for professional use. The regulation of such apps is a very complicated proposition and deciding which body should regulate them (both in terms of responsibility and control) is a subjective question. Undoubtedly a wide breadth of medical expertise would need to be called upon to regulate all applicable healthcare apps plus the amount of work involved would be substantial. So does an independent regulator need to be appointed?

Whichever authority would oversee medical apps would also need to be able to judge which have serious uses and which are more for user interest (such as a simple pedometer or calorie counter for instance). Any regulations would need to take this into account and be able to sieve apps which could endanger unwary users and those which don’t require such rigorous legislation. At present the legal precedence is that apps are used at the user’s risk but the potential for misinformation to be dangerous and potentially life-threatening is high, if the user begins to self-monitor a serious condition with an app which as no medical reference. Also one should consider how users will use apps and the web, for self-diagnosis, which in turn raises further concern for the industry. This is complicated even further if an app is to be used by a medical professional or organisation. Whilst there is a risk that a condition could be mismanaged or warning signs missed there is equally a potential for alarms to be raised unduly, which could cause greater strains on healthcare resources unnecessarily.

As well as software, there are potential questions on the smart device hardware being used to run medical apps. The Bring your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon is well documented, but using a personal device does not necessarily offer reassurances of accuracy. Calibration fears mean that a professional dedicated device would be far more preferable – but also means that the benefits (in both costs and portability) of BYOD would be difficult to realise in this situation.

Smart device apps could still be utilised in a less ‘hands on’ way as a method of collecting data. An electronic form (or ‘script’) could prompt staff on what needs to be checked and to flag up missing information for ongoing diagnosis. Of course much in the same way as direct medical analysis, these apps would need to be secure if they are sharing data with a central database. Security of data is just as important with communications apps as it is with medical diagnosis and reporting apps. Storing any data on the mobile device itself is not acceptable considering their movements and the potential for them to end up in the wrong hands. Equally, access to the app needs to be securely restricted – with any downloads or uploads equally safe from unwarranted eyes. Largely these are considerations that have to be made to all communications.

Smart device apps are well placed to use the range of networks (eg. 3G/4G, LTE and wireless internet) to offer reliable and cost-effective communications – both spoken and data. However, potential concerns over security and reliability mean that it may be preferable not to roll this out to a BYOD device.

In conclusion smart apps are here to stay and good use of them could save the healthcare industry money, resource and time. However this form of device needs to be recognised for what it is and used only when it can be truly beneficial. Lack of regulation, poor advice or a lack advice from the industry for medical style apps could see a host of users seeking professional help inappropriately or, when it is too late.