Use of Health Apps in the Medically Underserved

September 19, 2016


It seems that almost every other week now a new health ‘app’ is released. Health apps have become ever more popular, with apps for weight loss, such as Weight Watchers, apps aimed at exercise, such as FitBit and MapMyRun, as well as ones that track food intake. Essentially, there is a health app for anything and everything. Many individuals utilize these apps on their smart phones in order to achieve a personal goal and to improve their health. However, in general, the demographics of the individuals utilizing this technology demonstrate that it is mostly wealthy persons who are already interested in their well-being and already track their health. In this age of ‘digital health’ it appears that we are not targeting a substantial portion of the population: low-income, medically underserved individuals.

                       While many of these digital strategies work and are widely available, it is difficult to implement physical activity and healthy-eating approaches in those who are devoid of the technology. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the massive influx of patients into the U.S. health care system, the ability to utilize this sort of technology could save doctors and patients a significant amount of time and money. Several individuals who were previously uninsured now are, and attend free and low-cost community health clinics. These clinics primarily serve minority and underserved populations and can serve as a fundamental ‘middle-man’ in the implementation of these digital devices, actually providing the devices to the patients. In many places, especially in low-income and rural areas, people at least have access to a cell phone, which a small cohort of researchers are attempting to utilize in order to bring them back into the margins of healthcare in the U.S.

                       An article I read recently discussed various experiments that are currently being done to solve this problem. Some of the initiatives are relatively easy to use and fairly cheap, like Text4Baby. Everyone knows that having and raising a baby is difficult, especially if current medical advice and information is presented in a format that you can’t understand or surpasses your reading level. The app sends information via text messages, both in English and Spanish, and allows pregnant women, many of whom may not have insurance or the money to go to prenatal visits, to receive advice regarding significant milestones, breastfeeding and many other pregnancy related items. Other apps were more intricate, such as Prevent, which is a diabetes and heart disease prevention program for the medically underserved. Their program, which is free, provides participants with a digital scale, a network where they could connect with peers and behavioral counseling. Participants are required to get online for one hour per week, which is optimal as apps can consume a large amount of data and be very expensive. Other experiments, such as those at Petaluma Health Center, located in California, provide patients with ‘loaner’ cell phones, android tablets and other digital devices to log their health data.

                       The details of how exactly to best utilize these digital devices still need to be ironed out, but with many physicians being reimbursed for using these programs via the Affordable Care Act and the likelihood that patients that are in low-income, medically underserved areas tend to have more health issues and chronic diseases, the possible benefits for both parties are significant. What do you think about utilizing cell phones to bring health to those in need? Have you tried any health apps? Have you seen results? The hope is that with this ‘digital age’ we can make an effort to incorporate these health apps into our daily lives and create positive, long term health benefits.


Key words: app, medically  underserved, digital, health 

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