New applications are turning cell phones into medical
If you have an iPhone or Android, you no doubt appreciate why
they're called smartphones. The pocket-sized devices, while
nominally telephones, are also powerful computers with operating
systems capable of running hundreds of thousands of software
programs called applications, or "apps."
Most of the apps are designed to keep you entertained, but many
have a practical purpose, including helping you manage your
health. While a lot of health and medical apps provide little
more than an alternative to pen and paper for note taking, an
increasing number are harnessing the phones' computing power,
cameras, audio and video capabilities, motion sensors, and GPS
systems to create new ways to help you manage your health.
The wild world of apps
Apps are a new frontier of medicine — a territory still largely
uncharted, unregulated, and unstable. No one knows exactly how
many apps there are, how well they perform, or whether they are
worth their prices, which may vary from day to day.
That said, it's worth browsing through the health and medicine
section of your phone's app store occasionally. You'll find all
sorts of inexpensive apps to help you sleep better, quit smoking,
abstain from alcohol, and relieve stress. Others might help you
manage medical conditions from the common cold to cancer. And if
you want to better understand your doctor, you can download
medical texts and dictionaries.
If an app is free, you lose nothing by downloading it; you can
always delete it. If it costs something, user reviews, which link
to the product descriptions in your phone's app store, can help
you decide whether to spend the money. Many app producers also
offer free test runs.
The following are a few examples of the highest-rated and most
widely used apps for common health problems. Some are free; none
cost more than a one-time charge of $5.
Fitness and weight control
Tap & Track is an all-in-one app
for diet and exercise. You enter what you eat, your physical
activity, your actual weight, and your target weight. It computes
your nutritional intake (calories, carbs, protein, saturated and
unsaturated fats, and sodium) from a database of about 250,000
items found in restaurant chains, supermarkets, and even your
backyard garden plot. It also offers a selection of 180 physical
activities. Each time you enter a snack or plug in a workout,
you'll receive a nutritional tally as well the number of calories
you have left for the day. A food score — a proprietary
measurement developed by Weight Watchers International, Inc. — is
also given for dieters enrolled in that program. The $3.99 app
can generate graphs and spreadsheets tracking your progress,
which can be e-mailed to your computer.
Calorie Counter by FatSecret, a free
app for Androids, gives the nutritional content of thousands of
foods and allows you to enter your weight and exercise regimens.
But it doesn't do the math for you or create charts or
iTreadmill: Pedometer Ultra with
PocketStep is available for iPhones for 99 cents.
Although the name promises more than it delivers (it doesn't make
the sidewalk move in reverse), it is a very good pedometer. It
senses your motion as you walk and determines the length of your
stride. Once you establish your pace, it can select a tune with a
matching beat to keep you on track. It also estimates calories
Walk It! and
Pedometer-Widget, both pedometers for
Androids, are similar to iTreadmill, but get lower user ratings
for being less reliable.
Glucose Buddy tracks glucose readings
you enter four times a day, as well as food consumed, exercise,
and medication. You can set alarms to remind you to take the
glucose readings. The app also allows you to write notes to
explain any unusual circumstances, such as high-carbohydrate
meals. The data can be uploaded to www.glucosebuddy.com for more
detailed analysis. Glucose Buddy can be downloaded free to an
Handylogs Sugar , also free, is
available for all smartphones. It offers most of the same
functions as Glucose Buddy, but its functions are executed on the
Internet, so its accessibility may vary with the quality of your
phone's Internet connection. Handylogs also has apps for blood
pressure, fitness, and diet.
High blood pressure
HeartWise simplifies the task if your
doctor has asked you to log your blood pressure at home. You
enter your systolic pressure (the top number) and diastolic
pressure (the bottom number) as well as your pulse and weight.
The app will calculate your average arterial pressure and pulse
pressure and generate graphs showing fluctuations in these values
over time. It's available for the iPhone for 99 cents.
My Blood Pressure and Heart Rate ,
available free for Androids, is similar to HeartWise. You enter
your systolic and diastolic pressures and heart rate as well as
other information — including which arm was measured and whether
you were standing, sitting, or lying down when your pressure was
Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock. If anything
attests to a growing global sleep deficit, it's the overwhelming
popularity of this quirky 99-cent iPhone app, a top seller in the
G-8 countries. You place your phone on a corner of your mattress,
secure it under a contour sheet, and allow it to "observe" you
for a few nights. The app uses your phone's motion sensor to
chart your sleep patterns. Within a week it supposedly knows you
well enough to find the best moment (within a pre-set 30-minute
period) to awaken you with your choice of tones or tunes. Most
reviewers report that they are rarely jolted from a deep sleep
and usually feel refreshed, although a few have dashed their
phones to the floor during fitful episodes. Others have forgotten
their phones were there and made them into the bed the next
Smart Alarm Clock , which works much
the same way, is being developed for Android and should be in
Android Market in 2011.
Several stress-reduction celebrities have jumped on the apps
wagon. All of the following have garnered kudos from users and
critics, and the choice depends largely on which "brand" appeals
most to you.
Stress Free with Deepak Chopra offers a
whole bag of relaxation tricks and exercises — meditation, yoga,
journaling, and even e-mailing privileges with the master
himself. It's available for the iPhone for $1.99. Or you can try
Stress Free with Andrew Johnson for
$2.99 for the iPhone, $1.99 for the Android. The UK
hypnotherapist puts you under with good thoughts and a Scottish
burr. This is not an app for midday meltdowns.
If you're really stressed, keep an eye out for
iBreathe, developed by the Department
of Defense's National Center for Telehealth and Technology.
Designed for troops under the pressures of combat, it uses videos
to coach you through deep-breathing exercises and can be used as
an adjunct to professional therapy. You should be able to get it
on your iPhone or Android early in 2011.
Rage Eraser is the app for you if
you're mad as hell and can't take yourself any more. You may want
to start by using the "Rant" feature to record your next tirade
and listen to yourself after you cool down. The app can help you
track the situations that trigger your anger and identify the
distorted thoughts that feed it. There are male and female voices
to talk you down from a tantrum in progress as well as techniques
for transforming your anger into more productive emotions over
time. It's $4.99 for iPhones only.
The cool heads we need to guide us in a health emergency are now
available at a finger's touch: there are a slew of first aid
apps. The highest rated and most comprehensive is
Pocket First Aid & CPR from the
American Heart Association for iPhone and Androids. It offers
detailed instructions for assisting accident victims and people
who have been taken ill, including video instructions for
performing procedures like CPR or using a cardiac defibrillator.
Although the app is easy to navigate, it's important to
familiarize yourself with the content before you need it; some of
the instructions are so lengthy and intricate that they may be
hard to follow if you first try them during a crisis.
Hearing and vision assists
One of the best-kept secrets is that smartphones can function as
hearing and vision aids. Moreover, they'll make you look more
like a hipster than an oldster in the bargain.
You can turn your phone's camera into a magnifier by activating
the zoom function. (If it doesn't have one, you can download a
zoom-lens app.) When you pass your phone over the tiny type on a
menu or medicine label, you'll find a readable version on the
screen. If you have macular degeneration or low vision, the
iPhone's "Accessibility" menu in "Settings" has two features that
may help — a button to change the contrast from black-on-white to
white-on-black and a "voice-over" function that can read aloud
any text on the phone's screen, including words you type.
You'll need a $1.99 app, SoundAmpR, to
turn your iPhone into a hearing aid. To use it, plug the phone's
ear buds into the jack and adjust the controls that appear on the
screen. The "tune" slider adjusts the volume in each ear; the
"zoom" slider screens out background noise. Activate the recorder
if you want to capture the conversation for replay.
Not for doctors only
Medical professionals were early iPhone app adopters, and there
are hundreds of apps directed at them. (Expect Android apps to
narrow the gap soon.) A few of them can be great aids for
Quick Medical Terminology by Simple
Tree can help you translate your clinicians on the
spot, should they lapse into jargon. The 99-cent iPhone app
displays hundreds of medical terms, acronyms, and abbreviations
at a touch. Once your doctors realize you can communicate on
their terms, they'll describe you as A&O++++ (alert and
oriented in every respect).
According to its developer, more than a quarter of a million
doctors have Epocrates apps on their
phones. Epocrates is actually a network of medical-reference apps
sold by subscription for upwards of $100. However, basic versions
for iPhones and Androids are free and are more than adequate for
most of us. Epocrates Rx has everything
you need to know about almost any drug you take, from complete
package information in legible type to interactions between
drugs. Its pill identifier is especially helpful if you're trying
to determine what the stray tablet on the kitchen counter is.
Just dial in the pill's suspected name, or just its shape and
color, and you'll get an image to match it to. The
Epocrates BMI app not only calculates
your body mass index but also your basic metabolic rate and daily
calorie needs based on your height, weight, age and exercise
level. It flags your disease risk and offers treatment guidelines
if you are overweight or obese. You'll have to set up an account
with Epocrates before you download any of their apps and dodge
several "opportunities" to upgrade in the process.
If you want a nonstop diet of news from medical conferences and
journals, the Medpage Today app will
feed it to your iPhone or Android at no charge. Like the namesake
Web site, the app gives you an array of news channels to choose
from, including a general "Latest News," reports from medical
specialties, product alerts (approvals and recalls from the FDA)
and Washington Watch (coverage of national health policy). Since
the app is aimed at health professionals, you may need to
activate the medical terminology app for occasional help.
Apps come of age
In July 2010, the FDA signaled that apps should be taken
seriously when it allowed the WellDoc DiabetesManager System to
be marketed as a medical device. DiabetesManager came under FDA
scrutiny because it differs from earlier apps in one important
respect: it not only collects and analyzes data, but also offers
users medical advice and coaching based on the results. The app
passed muster because clinical trials demonstrated that patients
who used it had greater reductions in blood sugar than those who
didn't. It's slated to be available in the apps stores early in
2011, and apps for asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer
will be on its heels.
And that's just the beginning. As phones and their apps become
smarter and smarter, more clinicians are incorporating them into
their practices. In a few years, filling a prescription may be
just as likely to involve a session in the apps store as a trip
to the pharmacy.