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A look at using smartphone apps for patient-centered research

The usefulness and power of mobile apps in research was one of the last topics at Medicine X yesterday. One of the panelists in the late-afternoon "Clinical research in the palm of your hand" session was Stephen Friend, MD, PhD, who told attendees how willing most patients are to share their health data for science. "If you give someone a choice and ask them, 'Do you want your data to be looked at by qualified researchers around the world?'" people usually say yes, reported Friend, president of the nonprofit biomedical research organization Sage Bionetworks.

Panelist Michael McConnell, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford, can certainly attest to this: He's principle investigator of a study, MyHeart Counts, that has seen tens of thousands of users offer up their heart-related data for study.

Stanley Shaw, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard, shared thoughts on how having an ongoing data connection with patients can feel for a physician-researcher: "I had a surprising sense of immediacy when I started looking at... data. We had people upload information such as their blood glucose levels. You can see people cranking the level down day by day over weeks or months. It really does remind you of that pact between an individual and their physician and that it’s a privilege to take care of patients. It’s very exciting."

Also exciting is when apps are shown to have a direct impact on a patient's care or quality of life. Friend gave the example of a program that reduced emergency room visits and hospitalizations by allowing providers to keep track of patients via an app. "If someone has been holed up in their house for four days, we can send someone to find out why," he said. And if a patient stops taking a daily walk, that provides the medical team with clues as well.

Of course, not every patient— especially one with a chronic illness — is going to bother logging onto an app to share data every day, said Yvonne Chan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. "We talk about access and engagement," she said, but different types of users are going to engage with an app differently. For example, asthma patients with severe, poorly-controlled baseline disease are easy to engage and keep — especially if they happen to own a smart phone. Such patients are highly motivated to better control their disease and stay out of the emergency room.

"But people with minor disease that’s well controlled, maybe they have better things to do," she said. Apps could be designed to engage different patient populations; maybe that asthma app could have a mode that included more entertainment for patients who are less sick and less motivated.

More news about the conference is available in the Medicine X category

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