By Meredith Popolo
April 7, 2013
If Dr. Christian Pettker keeps pulling out his iPhone during an office visit, don't be offended. He's not checking email or texting his wife; he's almost always pulling up your medical information or looking at a medication.
“The advent of electronic medical records has been a boon to patient safety and physician efficiency in many ways,” Dr. Leora Horwitz, MD, MHS, a primary care internist and assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. (She warns, however, that new timesaving tricks often lead to oversight. After all, “physicians are not saints.”)
Healthcare professionals aren't the only ones who are benefitting from the onslaught of apps though. You too can download apps to your smartphone to monitor specific areas of your health more easily. Some apps purely provide information while others encourage you to input data to track trends. In some cases, that user data can even be exported and sent to doctors to prep them for appointments.
Dr. Horwitz cares primarily for poor and elderly patients who don't have smartphones, and says that accessibility creates a technology barrier. “My patients increasingly have cell phones, but they have regular cell phones, not smartphones. They have pre-paid minutes so you can never reach them after the second week of the month because they've all used up their minutes.” As costs come down and smartphones become the norm, she is confident that will change. The apps themselves have also become more intuitive so that it's easier to reach older people, assuming they have the technology. “We are in early days yet and there's a lot of potential,” she added.
In celebration of World Health Day, PCMag visited seven specialists—including an allergist, a dermatologist, a pediatrician, and a nutritionist—and asked which apps they recommend to their patients. Of course, the information gleaned from these apps is not intended to replace professional guidance.
Planning a picnic? Dr. Jennifer Collins, an assistant professor and physician specializing in allergy, asthma and immunology at the Department of Otolaryngology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, recommends that if you suffer from springtime allergies, you should use AllergyCast by Zyrtec (free for iOS and Android) to check your local pollen forecast first. You can plan ahead with the four-day calendar and even set alerts to get a heads-up when pollen counts are high.
Smoking affects all areas of your health—particularly your cardiovascular system—and causes coronary heart disease, the most common kind of heart disease in the United States. Some existing apps help you quit by calculating the amount of money saved by abstaining, distracting addicts from cravings, and designing personalized quitting plans. However, science-based apps are the most effective believes Dr. Thomas Glynn, MA, MS, PhD, and director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society. Dr. Glynn specifically recommends NHS Quit Smoking (free for iOS), which shares support messages for the first 30 days of quitting, plus tips from successful quitters and a direct line to the NHS Stop Smoking helpline.
Dr. Steven Goldberg, DDS, FADSE, and founder of the DentalVibe injection comfort system, has been practicing dentistry for more than 25 years, and says mobile apps are now changing the game. To train children to brush properly, he suggests Aquafresh's Time2Brush app (free for iOS). In the app, a cartoon toothpaste blob reminds kids to brush each quadrant of their mouth, using a musical timer to indicate when it's time to switch. For every brushing session youngsters earn points which can be used to dress their friendly cartoon coach in hats, glasses, tops, and shoes. For adults, Dr. Goldberg says OralEye (free for iOS) provides remote checkups. You snap photos of your mouth, fill in a short medical history form, note any problems, and send the report to a dentist. In most cases you receive an assessment quickly, complete with annotated images, a provisional treatment plan, and an estimated cost quote.
Dr. Tina Alster, MD, and founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, prescribes LoveMySkin Mole Map ($.99 for iOS) to help her patients track suspicious moles or lesions. You can tap a spot on a female or male figure to tag a mole and edit details to monitor growth or changes. A helpful ABCD guide (Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter) uses pictures to show the differences between benign and malignant moles. “The best aspect about this app is that it encourages people to perform self-skin exams and to be more aware of changes to their skin that could indicate the early warning signs of skin cancer, particularly melanoma,” says Dr. Alster.
With a baby on board, things can get a little hectic. On top of an already crazy calendar, there are doctor visits to schedule, decisions to be made, and exercises to practice. Pregnant women can manage all that and more with My Pregnancy Today (free for iOS and Android). The app is “probably the most functional of all of the pregnancy apps, with the best variety of services and information,” says Dr. Christian Pettker, MD, assistant professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences and Medical Director, Labor and Birth, Yale-New Haven Hospital. Using the app, moms-to-be can learn how their body is changing, watch how the fetus is growing, consult a pregnancy checklist with reminders, join “Birth Clubs” to connect with other women with similar due dates, manage weight with nutrition tips, and more.
The questions don't stop after you give birth: Did the nanny feed your baby? When did your mother-in-law put your angel down for a nap? And when was the last time you pumped? Dr. Christiana Nichols, MD, of Nichols Pediatrics in New York City, says that parents who take comfort in raw data can use Baby Connect to monitor every event, no matter how big or small. With this comprehensive app ($4.99 for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire), you can record feedings (bottle, nursing, solid food), diaper changes, naps, mood, doctor visits, milestones, and much more. “You can graph all of this data, export it into Excel or Facebook, and bring it in to your astounded pediatrician,” says Dr. Nichols. And while she cautions that all the data entry might be overwhelming for some parents, it is reassuring to others.
People with diabetes must constantly manage their blood sugar throughout the day to maintain levels as close to normal as possible. To make management easier, Heather Kanastab, RD, CDN, of ProHealth Care in Lake Success, New York, suggests patients use Glucose Buddy (free for iOS and Android). You can log data like glucose numbers, carbohydrate consumption, and insulin dosages, and also set reminders to check blood sugar levels. The app then graphs the data to illustrate trends. You can view all your data via a free online account and print it out for your doctor.