Tap to know how well you are

Trend of using health-monitoring apps on smartphones catches up in India

By Dinsa Sachan
Published: Sunday 15 January 2012

image TODAY’S phones are not just for talking or texting messages. Nor the applications (apps) in them for fun. True to their name, the phones of today are smart. They can be your business manager, travel expert and even health adviser.

Take the case of Susan Johnston, a freelance writer in the US. She suffers from chronic insomnia and has been using an app called sleep cycle for months now. “I started treatment using the app even before I met the doctor. Though he did not put much stock in the app it was helpful in showing overall trends in my sleep,” she notes. She is not the only one. The market for health apps is expected to hit the $400 million mark by 2016 (up from $120 million in 2010), according to ABI Research, a technology research firm in the US. According to the report by Juniper, a mobile research provider, health apps will have 142 million downloads globally by 2016.

Instant heart rate

imageDeveloped by : Azumio in the US

Available on: iPhone and Android

Cost : Free

How it works : Put a finger on the camera lens of the smartphone for 10 seconds, and your heart rate will start flashing on the screen in real time. The camera tracks changes in the colour of the skin with every heart beat (surge in capillary blood flow). The principle behind this app is similar to that used in medical pulse oximeter. A pulse oximeter is clipped to finger of the patient and measures oxygen level in one’s blood

Expert take: Anil Saxena, assistant director of invasive cardiology at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, Delhi, says, the technology is good and as accurate as the conventional system of measuring pulse

imageDeveloped by : Peter Bentley of University College London

Available on : iPhone

Cost : 99 cents

How it works: Hold the phone against the chest. The microphone picks up sounds from the heart. The sound is amplified by an inbuilt amplifier and then transmitted to earphones

Expert take: S B Gogia, Delhi-based plastic surgeon did not like it. He says the sound is too faint, and the microphone is too small to pick up sounds from a large area
Sleep Cycle

imageDeveloped by : Maciek Drejak Labs in Germany

Available on : iPhone

Cost : 99 cents

How it works:
Put the phone next to your

pillow. It monitors your sleep patterns based on the movements you make. It shows in graphs your sleep patterns through the night: deep sleep, light sleep or dreaming phase. Depending on the alarm you set, it also wakes you at the most appropriate time period. Suppose you set an alarm at 6:45 am. The app will figure out the best time between 6:15 and 6:45 to wake you

Expert take: Anoop Kohli, neurologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in Delhi, says the data about sleep patterns does not have any medical value. It makes sense only when something like this could be developed to be of help in sleep disorders. Also, it can be less accurate when you are sharing a bed

Something for everyone

The available health apps can be divided into three categories. The first type lets people keep a record of their health, like the calorie counting apps. The second are educational apps, which keep one updated with latest information. The third category consists of apps that are used for health monitoring. The apps use standard features of a phone like camera, microphone which are not designed for health monitoring.

These apps have become a part of Anil Saxena’s life. The assistant director of invasive cardiology at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in Delhi uses an app called Wards to keep tab on his patients. “It keeps me updated with my patients’ progress even when I’m traveling,” he says. He uses another app called CardioSource which gives instant access to journals in his speciality. Another app, DrawMD, he swears, has been of tremendous help in explaining heart diseases at the anatomical level. The app provides basic pictures of body organs and their minute parts. Doctors can trace over these pictures using their fingers to explain the intricacies of the body.

Saxena is at the crest of a trend wave that has already hit the developed world. According to a survey by CompTIAsurvey, IT industry association in the US, 38 per cent of physicians in the US are using health apps daily.

But some medical practitioners are sceptical. An app called Period Tracker that keeps track of the menstruation cycle does not find favour with them. Based on the period dates of the past, the app predicts the next due date. The app also tells a user when she is ovulating and most fertile. Sonia Naik, a gynaecologist in Delhi says, “It can be useful to women who lead a busy life and are trying to conceive, but the menstrual cycle is affected by many factors—emotional, dietary and physical. So reliability of such apps is questionable.”

Long way to go

The use of these apps may be debatable, at the same time experts say their use needs to be regulated. Sanjiv Malik, former president of the Indian Medical Association, says, “Who approves these apps and how will we know the information is correct?” It is essential these are approved either by the government or medical bodies before they are rolled out, he adds. The Food and Drug Administration in the US had issued guidelines in July this year for regulating the apps. The guidelines noted that apps have both risks and benefits and if they don’t work the way intended, they could jeopardise the patients’ health. Bojan Bostjancic, business development officer for Azumio, a software firm, which developed instant heart rate notes that many nurses use it and find it accurate when compared with traditional method. “But we do not position it as a medical device, it is to be used for health and fitness only,” he adds. Kanav Kahol, who was part of the team that developed algorithm for the heart app says there is nothing to be worried about.

“The future of healthcare lies in technology. Apps have great potential in telemedicine.”

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