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Guidance on using mobile health applications

Half of all Canadian physicians say they've used a mobile app in their practices (75% of those under age 35), according to results from the 2014 National Physician Survey involving more than 10,000 doctors. In contrast, only 16.5% of those polled said they had recommended mobile apps to their patients.

Given the relatively recent appearance of mobile apps in health care and the lack of published guidance for physicians in this area, it’s no surprise that many are wary about prescribing these aids to their patients.

However, with the growth of mobile health and the incredible proliferation of apps that allow people to self-diagnose, monitor or treat a wide spectrum of conditions, there’s obviously a need for recommendations to help physicians decide which, if any, apps may be best for their patients.

Some doctors would like to see an approved list of medical or health apps in various categories that are suitable for prescribing to their patients — a formulary, if you like. But with more than 100,000 health and medical apps available for iOS and Android and dozens added almost daily, the logistical and economic challenge of providing such a list is daunting.

As the Canadian Medical Association, we feel it makes more sense — and is in keeping with our general approach to such issues — to develop general principles our members should consider when looking at medical or health-related apps for mobile devices.

With this in mind, the CMA has prepared Guiding Principles for Physicians Recommending Mobile Health Applications to Patients. These guidelines build on the CMA’s earlier work in defining how physicians should appropriately communicate with patients online.

The document, currently being finalized with input from various stakeholder medical organizations, is a high-level summary that spells out how to assess a mobile health application for recommending to help a patient manage specific health and health care information and concerns.

As background, we contend that mobile apps can improve health care outcomes and mitigate costs — but also note that such tools should complement rather than replace the relationship between physician and patient.

The guiding principles articulate characteristics that should be present for a mobile health app to be safe and effective. These include:

  • endorsement by a recognized medical or professional organization
  • usability
  • reliability of information
  • privacy and security
  • avoidance of conflict of interest

To supplement this document, the CMA has also produced a handout that provides information for patients to consider when assessing whether to use a mobile health app to aid in health management. Both the guidelines and handout will be made available on cma.ca.

Mobile health is one of the fastest-growing areas in health care today. It is important for Canadian physicians to understand when and how to use this technology to assist in providing better care. The CMA is pleased to offer these guidelines to support our members and their patients in this new and rapidly evolving area.

Dr. Chris Simpson is president of the Canadian Medical Association