A Surefire Way To Find The Best Health Apps, And Other Ways Tech Is Changing Health Care

Dr. Danielle Martin helps explain the exploding world of health technology, and the effect it may have on equality.

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smartphone illustration health tech
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Q: Tech is such a big part of my life now — banking, ordering groceries, working out — but it seems like health care is being left behind. Is this ever going to change? And what kind of apps should I be using?

Canadian health care is catching up to leading industries when it comes to leveraging technology. Because of our geographic expanse, Canada has long been a leader in telemedicine, which allows people in rural areas access to health-care visits without leaving their communities. More and more Canadians can take advantage of patient portals, where they can see records and test results, message health-care providers and book appointments. Almost all physicians are now using electronic health records, which is a big improvement from even a decade ago.

In my experience, where we tend to fall down is in the links between systems — your family doctor may not be able to access your hospital records, and the hospital may not know what prescriptions you filled at the pharmacy — and that’s how important information gets lost. Privacy concerns, in part, explain why these connections are hard to build. We must figure out how to balance the needs for privacy and communication.

Meanwhile, the universe of health apps is exploding. The best evidence to support the use of apps is in the self-management of chronic diseases. But these apps often aim to entertain and treat people as consumers instead of patients. We need access to apps that are evaluated with the same rigour we apply to a new drug or medical device.

One free online resource, Practical Apps, offers physician reviews of apps for various conditions, such as insomnia and fertility issues (it grew from a partnership between Women’s College Hospital and the Ontario Telemedicine Network).

Artificial intelligence is also bound to have an impact on health care, but there’s a lot we still don’t know. Will machines be able to read imaging scans with more accuracy and greater speed and at a lower cost?

The excitement over health tech needs to be coupled with a commitment to not exacerbate equity problems. For example, we know fewer seniors than young people use smartphones, but they are more likely to need health care.

It’s also been suggested that rates of smartphone ownership are higher in younger, wealthier populations. This can lead to a digital gap, making health care more accessible to those who need it less and less accessible to those who need it more. If we’re going to embrace the digital revolution, product developers need to think about equity from the start.

Dr. Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president, medical affairs and health system solutions, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.