“GPs will ‘prescribe’ health and fitness apps” ran the headline this week in the Daily Telegraph. “The new strategy will see NHS set up its own ‘app store’ endorsing programmes to help people lose weight, exercise more and monitor health conditions. Details will be announced later this week as part of a strategy, Personalised Health and Care 2020 about how to tailor information for patients’ needs.”
This is just one of a number of recent stories highlighting the likely inclusion of increasingly user friendly technology into the arena of public (and private) health care. Indeed just type ‘Fitness Apps’ into the Google search engine and you will witness to what extent the industries of health and fitness are being colonised by the digital world.
You may be a ‘techie’ that can’t wait to get your hands on the iphone 6, or a ‘techno-phobe’ who would sooner dust off the typewriter in the attic. Either way we exist in a world that is being revolutionised by health devices and smart phones that can monitor and record absolutely everything from the glucose content in your tears to how many steps you take on a daily basis.
The Medical News Today website reported in a recent article that “Almost 20% of Smartphone users have one or more applications on their device that helps them track or manage their health. It is estimated that by next year, 500 million Smartphone users worldwide will be using a health app”.
It is no surprise that digital and consumer based technology is looking to infiltrate the way we monitor and maintain our health. In this article we will look at how – if at all – these apps and devices are beneficial to our fitness and health, and what the implications for the future are . The world of mobile health (“mhealth”) seems set to progressively become a part of our daily lives.
Fitness Apps and Devices
In Great Britain alone this is an industry currently worth around £300 million and a recent report by Kantar Media has estimated that around 13.1 million people will be using a fitness wearable device by 2015. Let us take a look below at some of the devices and apps that are in the process of revolutionising the way we exercise and manage our health and nutrition.
Since its foundation in 2007, ‘Fitbit’ has become the main player in the realm of fitness devices. They have produced a collection of wearable devices to monitor your everyday activity and sleep patterns; Flex, Zip, and One.
Flex is a wireless-enabled wristband that tracks your steps, distance and calories burned, in addition to monitoring your sleep quality. You can also set yourself goals and your progress is tracked by a set of lights on the wristband (the more lights that are on, the closer you are to completing your goal).
Zip is a clip on device which has similar tracking qualities to ‘Flex’ with the additional feature of being able to sync your results and data to a computer or smart phone thus informing you of your daily progress in a more graphic manner.
Also one of the world leaders in consumer technology and wearable devices, Jawbone have produced a wireless wristband called ‘UP’ that has Bluetooth enabled technology allowing the wristband to sync data to an App on your Smartphone. This app tracks your activity, your diet and your sleep and once it is familiar with your daily activities it will effectively recommend small changes that can be made (to relevant personal routines) to encourage you to become a healthier person.
Garmin – forerunner 110
This GPS-enabled device tracks the distance you have travelled – how fast and how far. You can upload your details to your own personal dashboard on ‘Garmin Collect’, which allows you to track your progress e.g. Distance travelled and average pace each time you go for a run. It will also inform you of how quickly you have travelled each mile.
Some versions of the Forerunner 110 allow you to monitor your heartbeat per minute. With this information, the device can provide heart-rate based calorie computations allowing you to accurately track how many calories you have burned. The Forerunner 110 is one of the most technical and compact tracking devices available on the market.
The information that is present on a food label is of huge importance to optimising your nutrition levels on a daily basis. Fooducate is an app that makes these labels easier to decipher. One would simply scan the barcode of a product and Fooducate would inform you of the following:
- Product highlights (good and bad)
- Compare similar products
- Help you select better alternatives
- Teach one about Nutrition
The app would also inform you if there are any excessive sugars, trans fats, additives & preservatives and food colourings that are present in a product.
A wristband that uses an embedded Spectrometer to monitor your heart rate sleep patterns, calories consumed and workout intensity. It also has the ability to breakdown the nutritional value of the foods that you are eating.
The device is also able to record your stress levels by monitoring your heart rate. If it detects that you are slightly stressed, the device will lightly vibrate to encourage you to calm down.
When all of the data is recorded, the AIRO can cross reference the data that is received to give you advice on small changes you can make to maintain your health.
Health & Nutritional Apps
It goes without saying that sensible and regular exercise supports the maintenance of good health. And fitness devices and apps can assist you in this endeavour. Currently such an app or device will support your exercise regime by performing tasks such as tracking and recording metrics (such as distances, calories burned etc.) and encouraging personal performances for your chosen routines. Such apps and devices are typically focussed at the health conscious consumer.
There is then strictly a subtle distinction for ‘health’ apps or devices which may perform some of the same tasks, plus a further range of health and nutrition related functions. The distinction is that such apps or devices are designed for use by individuals but as part of the professional health care marketplace, for example the NHS as reported earlier.
So for example in the USA and Canada such devices are being developed to help manage certain diseases and medical tasks including post operative care. As such some of this technology falls under closer scrutiny and compliance. And these requirements are some of the issues that developers of such technology know they need to address as health care professionals have reservations regarding the accuracy of the data recorded on some devices.
From a consumer perspective, the accuracy of the fitness data that is recorded on your phone isn’t of paramount importance. It acts as a motivational technique to make you perform better next time – in other words – it is not life threatening data or anything that could be potentially detrimental to you.
However, when vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate and sugar levels are being monitored the information becomes a whole lot more important. When you include this with the fact that this data will soon be recorded on your phone and then interpreted by your doctor, the information becomes of vital importance and could prove pivotal in procedures such as diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medicine.
Therefore the integration of both ‘fitness’ and ‘health’ apps (and devices) is to be a key catalyst with regards to the success of ‘mhealth’ in the future. Technology designed for both the professional and consumer marketplaces are designed for the individual – to ultimately benefit the health of the individual. One example of more advanced technology to be more readily available may be the new Apple ‘HealthKit’, which we describe later.
Many of the apps and devices that monitor your fitness and health have been available for a surprisingly long time. You may not have been aware of this because as an IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics analysis recently showed, more than 50% of health apps that are available have been downloaded fewer than 500 times.
However, by their own individual merit some of them are hugely successful. The apps and devices that we have looked at in this article have enormous reputations and are in the small percentage of gadgets that occupy a large segment of the market.
That being said, as Dr George Margelis from the University of Western Sydney stated in the Sydney Morning Herald, there is still a long way to go before this industry can gain a foothold in the mechanics of the medical world, as he comments below.
“The health app world is still very immature, to date they have been focused on low-lying fruit such as fitness tracking and not focused on the big issues of management of disease which consumes the bulk of the cost of the healthcare system and resources. It is also the area that effects people most. Unfortunately, managing these diseases, in particular the chronic diseases that are a major part of the current burden, requires more than just tracking a few physical parameters which is what the app world is up to.”
The future of ‘Mhealth’
The industry is currently in a stage of transition – from consumer-friendly products that assist you in keeping fit and maintaining well-being, we are now looking at an industry that could soon be the focal point of the medical world. It is in the not too distant future that doctors will be referring to data that patients themselves have recorded on their own personal, wearable devices. An example at the centre of this specific technology is the new Apple ‘HealthKit’.
This application does not record any data itself, instead it acts as a dashboard that stores all of the health, nutritional and fitness information that your Smartphone records.
And taking one step further there are devices currently in the stage of development that have the potential to completely revolutionise how one would monitor a long term disease. For example Google have recently released a ‘prototype’ of a smart contact lens for diabetics that can detect the blood sugar levels in your tears.
Google are also currently developing a ‘nanoparticle’ pill that could detect potentially harmful molecules in your body and then relay this information to a Smart watch that you would be wearing.
Health & Fitness Apps on the NHS?
“Family doctors will “prescribe” patients with smartphone applications to help them improve their health and lifestyle, as part of a new Government strategy.
The plans for an “NHS app store” would mean that approved applications would be kitemarked by the health service, and might be provided free to those trying to improve their health.
Under the initiative, overweight patients might be recommended apps which track their diet and exercise, and provide goals, and virtual coaching, while those suffering from health conditions such as diabetes could use the apps to monitor blood sugar.
Apps currently being used by parts of the health service include systems which give parents access to their children’s immunisation record, booking of GP appointments and ones for older people to book in carer visits.
Other applications in use include a free Quit Smoking app, which provides daily support messages for one month, tips and a real-time counter displays the minutes, hours and days a person has been smoke-free, and the amount of money saved.”
As reported by The Telegraph Online (10th November 2014) – Link to the full story below.
It is clear that there is a long way to go before the majority of health professionals are convinced by the credentials of corporate digital organisations when it comes to the accuracy of Smartphone data.
If these problems can be overcome, and combined with ongoing technological advances, the way in which we seek medical assistance could become a lot easier and such personal information could become much more accessible.
It seems beyond doubt that it is only a matter of time until we see ‘mobile health’ becoming an integral part of the medical world. And the ability to constantly monitor chronic diseases will surely become a part of our daily life.
What App’s Do You Use?
This is the first of a series of articles on health, nutrition and fitness technology. If you have a particular and relevant app or device that you would like us to review in the future, or perhaps one you already use and would like to share your thoughts on its performance – then do please let us know. Simply email [email protected]
Joe is part of the customer service team at Cytoplan. He qualified last year with a degree in politics from Swansea University and is a native of Worcestershire, the home of Cytoplan. Whilst studying Joe was a regular contributor to the University news and he combines a passion for technology and writing with a growing expertise in health and nutrition.
With thanks to Joe for this insight into the world of technology as it relates to health and nutrition. We look forward to more articles on this subject in the future, so do please contribute any suggestions for relevant topics.
If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time. If you want to be alerted by email when a new post is published simply add your email address in the ‘Get The Latest Post By Email’ in the right-hand column.
Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
[email protected], 01684 310099