Beyond Fitbits: Chronically Ill Use Apps For Health

Many health app makers, including Vida, are targeting patients with chronic illnesses.  (Vida Health )

James Metcalf is one of about 70 million Americans who lives with high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension.

But six months ago, Metcalf started using a mobile app called Hello Heart to monitor his blood pressure and remind him to take his meds. Six months after he started using the app, his blood pressure stabilized.

“I needed something that reminded me everyday to track my blood pressure and give me immediate feedback," says Metcalf, who lives in Missouri. "The difference in how I feel now is night and day.”

The press has fixated on the apps and services that serve the healthiest segment of the population. But a new study has found that the most prevalent application of digital health technology is towards a humbler and more necessary goal: To help sick people live healthier lives.

The San Francisco-based venture fund Rock Health recently published its first survey on trends in digital health based on responses from 4,000 American adults. One of the most striking results is that the so-called "super adopters" of digital health technology tend to be “younger, sicker, and significantly more likely to own a smartphone.”

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“Adoption of digital health services skews towards sick people," says Malay Gandhi, managing director at Rock Health. "If you use technology for other things in your life, why wouldn’t you also turn to technology for your health?”

The Myth of the 'Worried Well'

Digital health is one of the fastest-growing areas of technology, with new products and services increasingly serving as a means for people to engage with their health.

James Metcalf uses mobile health apps to help keep his blood pressure under control.
James Metcalf uses mobile health apps to help keep his blood pressure under control. (Hello Heart )

Beyond gathering information, more and more people are using mobile devices to track everything from sleeping habits to menstrual cycles. Want a quick at-home workout? There’s an app for that. Want to monitor your baby’s vitals? There’s a sock for that.

Certainly, there are  digital health products out there that cater to those who are already at peak health and fitness. But doctors and digital health entrepreneurs say that this is not the norm.

“People who have multiple chronic conditions, who may be from places that are medically under-served, feel helpless and don’t know where to turn -- so they turn to the internet and mobile apps," said Dr. Connie Chen, the cofounder and Chief Medical Officer at Vida, a mobile app for personal health coaching.

An app called Hello Heart is used by 40,000 people to manage heart disease.
An app called Hello Heart is used by 40,000 people to manage heart disease. (Hello Heart )

Helping the Chronically Ill

The majority of people who use the Vida app are struggling with a chronic condition, like diabetes and high blood pressure, Chen explained. The goal of the app is to help people change their behavior and maintain healthy habits.

For Omaha, Nebraska-based JC Hammond, health apps have transformed the way she manages her severe asthma. Despite having asthma her whole life, or perhaps because of it, she often struggled to remember whether or not she had taken her medication.

“People think if you can’t breathe, you will remember to take your medicine," Hammond said. "But if remembering to take your medicine becomes routine, you do it mindlessly or you don’t remember."

Hammond is currently using six different health apps, including Mango Health, which helps her take her medication on time, and a Walgreens app to manage her prescriptions. These digital health products have also enabled her to gain more insight into her disease.

“These apps help me identify patterns,” Hammond said. “I knew what triggered my asthma, but until recently, I had not really thought about what kinds of things in my daily routine could predispose me to having an attack or make it harder to manage my asthma.”

Bill McCain, who is based in New York, has diabetes and uses a Dexcom continuous glucose monitoring system, which attaches via a patch and reads the glucose value of the fluid just under the skin. It sends the value to his phone every three minutes. His wife also has the app on her phone, so she can check McCain’s blood sugar and receive notifications if it gets outside of specific ranges.

“Most people with diabetes check their blood sugar values 4 to 8 times per day,” McCain said. “I get 480 readings per day that aren't just a freeze-frame in time, but can show me whether my sugar levels are rising or falling and the slope of the change."

Gaining Legitimacy

Earlier this year, the CDC acknowledged for the first time the benefits of three digital health apps that aim to support healthy eating habits and counter the onset of Type 2 diabetes. It recognized three mobile health technologies -- Omada Health, Noom Health, and DPS Health -- that meet the National Diabetes Prevention Program’s evidence-based standards.

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This was a major step for digital health technology, especially for the apps that address chronic conditions. It paves the way for a not-so-distant future where doctors could prescribe apps to their patients, along with more traditional treatments. That might boost adherence, but also give doctors access to a greater collection of patient data.

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