Earlier this month, a blog post from Dr. Jennifer Middleton highlighted recent content in American Family Physician that can help family physicians support resolutions to make healthy lifestyle changes. Increasingly, I also recommend that my patients consider using smartphone apps to give them extra motivation and allow them to chart their progress toward personal goals. The latest in a series of articles on medical apps in FPM reviewed four mobile apps designed to encourage healthy habits, including healthy eating, physical fitness, substituting water for sugary drinks, and taking prescribed medications. Although the evidence that apps provide greater benefits than usual care remains limited (a randomized trial of a fitness app reviewed previously by FPM found no statistical differences in weight loss, blood pressure, or satisfaction), "digital therapy" is now being used to promote wellness and improve self-management of chronic conditions as diverse as substance use disorder and atrial fibrillation.
A draft technical brief issued by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed the evidence on health outcomes for 11 commercially available mobile apps for self-management of type 1 or type 2 diabetes. For five apps, studies demonstrated clinically significant improvements in hemoglobin A1c levels at 3 to 12 months. However, no studies showed improvements in quality of life, blood pressure, weight, or body mass index.
Regarding apps for clinicians, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clarified in a recent guidance document how it intends to treat digital decision support software going forward. Software that functions as a diagnostic device will be regulated, while digital tools that merely assist clinicians in making diagnoses will be excluded from regulation and "cleared" for use. On its website, the FDA provides a list of examples of mobile medical apps that it has cleared or approved to date.
Whether mobile apps will complement traditional prevention, diagnosis and treatment in primary care, or replace them in some cases, remains to be seen. Health professionals: do you routinely prescribe apps to your patients, or do you expect to do so in the future? Everyone else: has your doctor suggested using an app to improve your health, and if so, did you find it helpful?
This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.