By Imogen Crispe
A new smartphone application to help people control their asthma is just one of the ways New Zealanders are using mobile phones to monitor their health.
Asthma New Zealand recently launched an iPhone app called “Breathe Easy”, which allows people to monitor their peak flow, set reminders to use inhalers, and keep a symptoms diary.
Asthma New Zealand marketing manager Linda Thompson says the app could help reduce doctors’ visits and hospital admissions for asthma patients, increase their attendance at school and work, and save millions in care costs.
“Every hospital admission costs between $3000 and $5000. [But] it’s not the cost, it’s the savings that are the most beneficial.”
And the app is already proving popular, with almost 400 downloaded since it was released three weeks ago.
Ms Thompson says many of the 600,000 asthma patients in New Zealand live with the symptoms of asthma, not realising they could be feeling better. She says the app will help with this.
“They actually believe they’re in control, and they’re not.”
She says it made sense to create an app for people on the go to remind them to look after their health.
“I think it’s just people are so busy and I think it’s a great way forward that people can actually have these reminders in a busy routine.
“Apps are what everyone’s doing.”
The app can also be used to contact asthma patients with information that is relevant to them. Ms Thompson says it proved useful to tell people what to do when Mt Tongariro erupted, as the ash affected breathing.
Although there is a small concern that people may self-medicate and self-advise using the app rather than see a doctor, Ms Thompson says there are built in features to avoid this.
“Throughout the app we are constantly saying ‘you should see your doctor’.
“We don’t want to replace conventional therapies.”
The app was developed over one year especially for Asthma New Zealand by New Zealand-founded company Vadr, with funding and support from GlaxoSmithKline, First Sovereign Trust and Infinity Trust.
“It was a high cost, but the cost savings and benefits to the health system is where the motivation comes,” Ms Thompson says.
Asthma New Zealand now hopes to develop an android app as well as a programme doctors can use which will be synchronised with their patients’ asthma apps.
Other ways smartphones are used in health
Dr Karen Day, senior lecturer in health informatics at the University of Auckland says the use of smartphones is becoming more widespread in healthcare, but people need to exercise a degree of caution with them.
There are apps to monitor diabetes, weight loss, depression, general wellness and many other health issues.
Smoking cessation organisation Quitline has a programme called Txt2Quit which sends smokers text messages to help them quit and a stop smoking app is currently in development.
Dr Day says she is not surprised smartphones are being used in these ways.
“People do want to monitor their own heath. A lot of people are already doing it with pen and paper…[or] on computers.
“There’s going to be a large section of the population who want to use their mobile phones because it’s immediate.”
But she says it is unknown how well this form of health monitoring is working.
“There’s very little research at this early stage to show what the effect is.”
And there are also a number of worries with people using these apps such as security and privacy.
“If a person has an app open and it’s not password protected, another person can access data and modify it, which could affect health safety,” Dr Day says.
There is also a worry that people won’t understand what the app is telling them.
“Medical terminology is a big barrier for ordinary people.”
Dr Day says it is also difficult for people to choose a reliable app, as there are often numerous versions made by different organisations.
“I think that the first thing to do is ask your doctor, if you want to use an app for monitoring your health.”