Like the 128.3 million Indians hooked on over 60,000 health and wellness apps, I excitedly forayed into the world of mobile health (or mHealth) and downloaded a pedometer app called Pacer. “Lose weight and track calories burned using 24/7 step counting”, the description beckoned.
It seemed fairly easy, and I was happy to begin a journey into taking control of my own fitness. Down the wormhole I went, and soon after I saw my phone littered with calorie trackers, exercise apps and apps that reminded me to stay hydrated.
Diving deeper I realised, I had only just scratched the surface and beyond the trendy weight loss apps was a whole industry of digital healthcare – from apps that tracked your sleep or menstrual cycle to ones that help regulate blood sugar levels or be aware of cardiovascular diseases and even filter doctors by rating.
But do they work? And why are so many of us obsessed with digital health?
mHealth is a Booming Industry
In 2019 India, the annual revenue in the fitness segment sits at around Rs 11,000 crores.
According to market research company Grand View Research, the global mHealth market is projected to reach Rs 111,800 crore by 2025. The forecast also suggests that the growth will come mainly from developing nations, where smartphone penetration is rapidly increasing.
On top of this, the urban Indian lives life at a breathless pace, with extended work hours and constant entertainment options for our down time. As a consequence, our health takes a back seat.
With the boom of internet access, smartphone use and digital payments, mhealth apps that track your health seems like an easy solution, and more and more people are jumping on the well-being bandwagon.
"It is too early to say if this will replace doctors, but for smaller issues these apps are alright. These make the healthcare system more efficient by providing services to more people and being cost effective for the consumer. It must be seen as complementary to real doctors." - Dr Raman Kumar, President, Association of Family Physicians of India
Then, the problem also becomes one of access – reliable doctors and hospitals are often few and far-flung, especially in tier 2 and 3 cities and rural areas.
According to the WHO, 45 percent of their member states have less than 1 physician per 1000 populations.
“Besides”, Varun Dubey, vice president of marketing for the medical site Practo told FIT, “healthcare has been a very fragmented experience for too long. What if you are too sick to visit a doctor? Or everything around you is shut? Online services can step in for a verified chat with a doctor.”
"Technology is a tool to help make doctors more efficient. Apps and digital healthcare helps with widening access and creating a database that the user can have more control of, but the care is delivered by doctors. They are the experts with years of training, and we are just facilitating a smoother healthcare system." - Varun Dubey
AI and Personalised Help
Artificial intelligence is awe-inspiring, and the applications can transform how we live our lives – especially in healthcare.
What is it? AI essentially is technology or computer software that learns, grows and adapts and in the most basic applications could even be predictive text or Apple’s SIRI or the Google Assistant.
Now, one of the complaints with mHealth is its broad focus, it offers a pool of options for a diverse audience, but where’s the individualised attention you receive in a one-on-one doctor session?
How can an app that implores you to walk 10,000 steps work for everyone? Does it account for different age groups or diet types or medical history?
I first noticed HealthifyMe, a weight-loss app with a 4.5 start rating among 4.35k ratings at the time of writing, because it had a calorie tracker that worked with the Indian diet. So, unlike apps from the west, this one knew the difference between daal and daal makhini and the calories in each.
Speaking to FIT, HealthifyMe co-founder Tushar Vashisht says that one of the defining technologies of the app is called Ria.
Different from the higher priced private dietitian and fitness expert consultations, Ria is “the world’s first nutritionist available in the palm of your hands” who always gets to know you as she recommends specific diet plans and offers advice. She’s the app’s AI feature that focuses on catering to the individual. She tailors her suggestions based on feedback from customers with a similar profile.
So, if you want a healthy snack, she will look at other people who fit your medical profile and have similar weight loss goals and your own taste preferences to recommend a tailor-made suggestion for you.
Safety and Other Concerns of Living in a Digital World
“The digital age is transforming everything, including healthcare,” says Dr Raman Kumar to FIT.
For example, there’s the app Faacto, which claims to use technology and DNA testing to further personalise your diet and weight loss journey. For a user, this sounds exciting and dubious all at once because we still don’t know where the DNA testing technology can lead us. As a result, worries of data mining, from our medical histories to our genetic make-up, grow stronger.
“The fear of data mining is generic (to the entire digital landscape), it applies to social media or banking too. Data security is important, and apps need to follow the rules and regulations for this,” adds Kumar.
Even so, people do get more anxious about healthcare data and the question remains that has transparency and trust in the digital biosphere developed to an extent where we can trust apps with our healthcare?
Dubey responds to this by saying that mHealth apps may in fact increase transparency and trust by verifying doctors’ credentials.
A 2016 WHO report said that 57 percent of allopethic doctors in India are not medically qualified, and although this was rubbished by the government, the fear remained. The study further asserted that in rural India, the figure dropped to 18.8 percent of allopathic doctors who had medical qualifications. In 2019, another case of fake doctors came to light when 57 doctors in Maharashtra were busted with fake post graduation degrees.
This is all to say that technology may not be the bad guy and might even help rectify the situation by empowering users with more information.
Your Tech Works for You, Not the Other Way Around
The internet is famed for opening up the doors to information, making the patient more aware and in control.
"Patient awareness is growing and people are more proactive, which is a great thing for healthcare in general. On Practo, we serviced 165 million patients in 2018 which says a lot about where the industry is heading." - Varun Dubey
Digital healthcare clearly needs more focused attention, and data security is a huge concern for the internet age, but on the brighter side, mHealth apps that bring healthcare solutions to the palm of your hands may bridge the care gap and empower thousands.
We are living in a digital world, after all, and every aspect of our life will soon exist online. So it might be time to, cautiously, step in and embrace the world of digital healthcare.
(Introducing Wellness Junkies: This is the first segment of a series about the new, exciting and sometimes scary ways in which we obsess over health and wellness. Write to us with suggestions of things you'd like us to cover.)
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