Should Doctors ‘prescribe’ Health Apps to Patients?

doctor prescribe mobile app

Physicians are known as solution providers. Patients visit for advice, reassurance and recommendations on the best course of action.

Thanks to the growth in Digital Health and mobile health technology during the past few years, there is now a new way that doctors can assist patients: through technology adoption.

Apps such as iTriage, Glucose Companion, and Tummy Trends are among some of the Top Apps that Doctors now recommend to patients as a companion to in office monitoring and treatment, based on a report compiled by Medical Economics.

However, not everyone is convinced that physicians should be ‘prescribing’ apps to their patients.

According to Healthcare Attorney Careen Martin, writing for the Star Tribune “This shift has pros and cons. On the one hand, the ease and convenience of mobile health apps increase patient engagement. Clinicians can use apps to improve decision-making based on concrete long-term data methodically tracked and sent directly to them. Apps could also lead to increased efficiency.

On the other hand, patients may second-guess physicians, place blind faith in an app, or forgo necessary in-person treatment. The use of apps might also undermine long-term doctor-patient relationships.”


Privacy can be another roadblock. While traditional healthcare providers are bound by the HIPAA requirements for protecting the confidentiality of patient data, health and medical apps are not. App privacy policies will typically some general privacy terms, yet they may ultimately disavow any responsibility for the privacy of patient data.

Dr Jeff Livingston MD, writing on the popular blog KevinMD, has this to say about doctors recommending apps. “There has been an explosion in health apps. Patients are using them for weight loss, calorie counting, exercise monitoring, ovulation calculation and for many other health needs. But to truly integrate the concept of health apps in the health care system healthcare providers will need to get involved.”

He also offers advice to app developers considering the medical space: “It is very important that app developers understand the physician mindset if you expect us to use apps and to recommend your product to patients. Adoption is unlikely to be based on cost, efficacy and safety. Your app needs to meet two simple criteria.

“First, the app needs to make physician’s lives easier. Second, it needs to make the care we provide our patients better.”

Dr Kevin Pho, founder of KevinMD, has strong views on the topic: Despite the popularity and promise of these apps, I’m not yet ready to “prescribe” them to my patients. Not many physicians offer guidance for health apps, leaving patients alone to confront an ocean of apps of uncertain relevance or usefulness.”

As with all medical diagnosis decisions, the choice to recommend consumer health apps is very clearly a personal one. Yet as the market becomes more privacy compliant, and aligns with the needs of doctors, the hope is that medical and health apps can live up to the hype they have created.


Want to read more?

Can Mobile Health Technologies Transform Healthcare? by JAMA
Why I’m not ready to prescribe Mobile Health Apps by Kevin Pho