Go on the Apple Store or the Android Marketplace and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that purport to help people stay healthy, provided that they have access to a mobile phone.
The options range from helpful workout trackers and medication reminders to attachment-enabled blood glucose readers, to otherworldly sounding programs that purport to use sound or light to heal medical annoyances such as acne or tinnitus.
Though they only account for 1 to 2 percent of the mobile app market, according to a study released in 2012, medical apps represent a $150 million industry, which is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next five years.
But the medical app revolution isn’t just limited to patients looking for a cure in their iPhones. At the University of Texas Medical Branch, little things are making a big impact on the way doctors and students learn and perform.
Byron Smith, a second-year medical student at the medical branch, said that one of the main innovations his teachers and colleagues have been excited about are the digitizing of medical records.
The medical branch uses a system called Epic MyChart, which can be used to view test results, view upcoming appointments and refill prescriptions right from a mobile. The system also can be accessed by patients.
Smith also said medical information apps can be used to double check information on the fly. One, called Epocrates, allows doctors to access a database of thousands of prescriptions to look up potential side-effects and unwanted interactions. Others allow access to medical journals or lectures by professors to help students study wherever they are.
Still, Smith said while the tools are valuable, they don’t substitute for the work being done in the halls of the hospital, nor should they totally substitute as a medical provider.
“I feel like while these guides are very helpful, they don’t do the groundwork,” Smith said. “Having an integral understanding is very important before you can refer to any of this.”
The medical branch has been at the forefront of combining communication technology and health care since long before there was a computer in every pocket.
In 1993, the medical branch launched a telehealth program to help save costs while treating patients in Texas prison facilities. Instead of driving long distances to connect doctors with sick inmates, the medical branch began using a combination of cameras, video screens and monitoring devices to diagnose and converse with patients from afar. The medical branch launched the Center for Telehealth Research and Policy in 2002 — and has expanded not only to help treat prisoners, but help treat hundreds of patients a day and to connect to hospitals on four other continents, including Antarctica.
“One of the things that has always been a challenge is monitoring a patient at home,” said Oliver Black, the medical branch’s information services video operations manager.
When the center first began its work, its devices filled a small room, but in the years since, technology has shrunk their setup to the size of a suitcase, Black said. As the costs of technology come down, Black said, the possibility of patients “visiting” their doctors over a mobile phone may not be too far away.
“That’s probably going to be the next step,” Black said.