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The transformative impact of digital health and mobile apps: enhancing efficiency in healthcare

In today’s IMMEDIATE insight, Chiara Di Lucente, a Scientific content manager at Zadig gives insights into health digitalization.

In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the landscape of healthcare, driven by the adoption of digital technologies: as a matter of fact, the so-called digital health is revolutionising the way we approach health-related issues. From mobile apps to wearable devices, these innovations are reshaping this field, helping physicians and health professionals to gather more precise information from patients and, at the same time, empowering individuals to take control of their health and wellness.


Evolution of Digital Health

But what does “digital health” mean? Stemming from the term “eHealth” which is defined as the use of information and communications technology in support of health and health-related fields, digital health and care commonly refers to tools and services that use information and communication technologies to improve prevention, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and management of health-related issues and to monitor and manage lifestyle-habits that impact health. Ranging from smartphones to Internet applications, these technologies are constantly providing innovative ways to improve users’ well-being, enhancing efficiency and medical outcomes.

Recognition by Institutions

Recently, this field has been progressively acknowledged by institutions: in a joint document published in 2015, the World Bank Group, the United States Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization advocated the “use of the digital revolution to scale up health interventions and engage civil society”. Moreover, the 2018 World Health Assembly Resolution on Digital Health recognized the importance of digital technologies in advancing universal health coverage and other health aims of the Sustainable Development Goals, urging health ministries to assess and prioritize the development, evaluation, and implementation of digital health technologies to promote equitable access to healthcare, especially for vulnerable groups. Additionally, the document assigned the World Health Organization (WHO) the responsibility of providing normative guidance, including promoting evidence-based digital health interventions. Digital health has attracted substantial interest from the medical and public health community, while governments, donors and multilateral institutions have recognized the transformative role of digital technologies for health system strengthening.

Benefits and Applications of Mobile Health (mHealth)

The use of mobile technologies emphasized this process, opening new channels to access a series of healthcare-related services, especially - but not only- in low- and middle-income countries, in places or in settings in which healthcare is less accessible. In fact, in very few years, smartphones have become part of everyday life for many people: in 2017, worldwide, there were 2.39 billion smartphone users, and most experts stated that this number is predicted to exceed three billion in a very short time. Given the large diffusion of mobile communication and technologies, the digital health term alone was not sufficient to describe this phenomenon: that is why was coined the more specific term mobile health (mHealth), a subset of eHealth defined as “the use of mobile wireless technologies for public health.” In particular, mHealth refers to mobile apps and other wearable devices that are used to collect and monitor medical information from users, but also for disease surveillance, treatment support, epidemic outbreak tracking and chronic disease management. If one of the key objectives of mobile technologies in healthcare is to decrease both spatial and administrative barriers in the relationship between health professionals and patients, that is only one potential outcome that may derive from the use of these technologies. By providing health professionals with comprehensive insights into patient health through data access and by giving patients more control over their health, mobile health has the potential to dramatically improve healthcare. These technologies offer users the opportunity to make better-informed health decisions, facilitate prevention and early detection of serious illnesses, and enable the management of chronic conditions beyond conventional healthcare environments. Moreover, the use of big data analytics on mHealth data may be promising to deliver medical insights, enhance individuals' well-being both in nonclinical and clinical contexts and advance access to quality healthcare at an affordable cost. All of that may result in redacted inefficiencies, improved access to health services, reduced costs, increased quality, and more personalized medicine for every patient.

Market Growth and Usage Trends

For all these reasons, alongside the increase in smartphone use, the market for mHealth apps has risen massively in recent years and is growing rapidly. In 2015 alone, there were more than 100,000 new health apps published in app stores, with approximately three billion downloads of apps related to health, fitness, and medicine. In comparison to 2013, the number of downloaded apps has almost doubled. Users utilize apps to monitor several health metrics like steps, heart rate, and sleep patterns, turning smartphones into valuable tools for individual health tracking. Additionally, smartphone apps have the potential to provide population-level data, making them valuable for healthcare research and epidemiological studies. Over the past two decades, surveys have shifted from traditional methods like paper or telephone-based questionnaires to electronic systems such as internet-based surveys and personal digital assistants (however, only a few questionnaires on smartphone apps have been used in clinical settings). However, despite the rise in the use of smartphones and mobile health apps, many issues regarding the benefits and potential uses still need to be addressed.

In conclusion, digital health technologies and in particular mHealth are driving a significant change in healthcare, providing a more holistic view of patient health, and giving users greater control over their well-being. Although many aspects related to these technologies need to be better addressed, thanks to them it seems more possible to transform the way we approach healthcare, making it more personalized, accessible, and efficient.