February 5, 2015

The disruptive potential of mobile health apps



I recently took my blood pressure with my phone. Is this the future of health care?

As background for a commentary I was writing for the Journal of American Hypertension, I used an iPhone app to measure my blood pressure. By putting my finger on the camera lens and pressing the phone against my chest, I got a reasonable measurement. Other smartphone apps track activity, heart rate, and more. Is on-the-go monitoring the future of health care?

I hope so. People with chronic conditions need easy, everyday ways to check their health. 
For people with hypertension (high blood pressure)—which is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke—a single blood pressure measurement during a clinic visit doesn't tell us if their medications and lifestyle changes are working to control their condition. The best method for accurately measuring blood pressure is to wear a monitor 24/7, but this is intrusive.

Health tracking is already moving out of clinics and into the community: Your local drugstore might have a blood pressure-measuring kiosk, for example. In a pilot study in Tacoma, Wash., my research team found that people successfully used pharmacy blood pressure kiosks that had validated accuracy, offered instructions in English and Spanish, and had the ability to electronically send measurements to the user’s primary care team. Going further, an app that turns a mobile phone into a blood pressure-measuring device could help billions of people around the world monitor their hypertension regularly.

We’re not yet to the point of recommending smartphones as blood pressure monitors, though. So far, no apps are validated for accuracy by national medical device organizations.

Still, mobile apps are a disruptive force in health care. People are already using them as exercise motivators, diet trackers, and medication reminders. As users give feedback to app designers, features such accuracy, ease of use, and the ability to send results to providers should improve. I look forward to the day when I can confidently recommend a blood pressure-monitoring app to my patients with hypertension and use the data they send me to help them stay healthy.


Beverly B. Green, MD, MPH, is a Group Health physician and a Group Health Research Institute associate investigator.


Learn more

From Journal of the American Society of Hypertension

From Group Health Research Institute