Mobile apps for managing health


Smartphones do more than keep you in contact with friends and family. A slew of apps can help both you and your patients manage health better

Valerie DeBenedette, Contributing Editor

Do you h

ave a smartphone? Do many of your patients have them? If so, you and your patients have a pocket-sized device that can help users manage diabetes, follow weight loss, track distances run and other types of workouts, keep on top of prescriptions and refills, find quick access to information about diseases and conditions, and provide rapid first-aid advice.

All this can be done with the help of mobile apps.

Mobile apps are application software programs for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets that help with a specific task. There are mobile apps that enable you to play games, get travel directions, keep lists of whatever it is you collect, stay up-to-the-second on your favorite team and sport, and identify the constellations above you.

Pharmacists are finding that many apps can be useful as professional tools for themselves and as aids they can recommend to their patients. Some of the most useful are included in the sidebar published with this article, “Apps for Patients and Pharmacists” (see end of article).

Apps on mobile devices

Several brands of smartphones are available, run by several different operating systems (OS), including Android from Google, iOS (the operating system for Apple’s iPhones), and the BlackBerry OS. The new line of Windows phones and surface tablets uses a Microsoft OS.

As with computers, a phone’s OS may determine the type of mobile app you can use, which in turn can limit the number of apps available for it. Although many apps have identical (or nearly identical) versions for both Android and Apple devices, some apps exist on only one OS.

In addition to smartphones, apps can run on tablets such as Apple’s iPad. Most non-iPad tablets operate using Google’s Android system. Apple’s iPod Touch can also run some apps.

Some apps are free and need only to be downloaded into the phone or tablet and then installed. Others cost anywhere from 99 cents to a few dollars; some, depending on the application, can be more expensive. In many cases, apps are available in a free version and a paid version. The free version may not have all the utility of the paid version, but it is a good way to see whether an app is useful before buying it.

Apps that require connection to the internet can use a phone plan’s monthly allotment of data usage. Going over the data amount in a plan can rack up charges on a mobile phone bill. Some smartphones can use wireless internet access in places that make it available rather than link to the internet as a phone, which will save on the user fee.

Health and app-iness

Apps can be used to keep track of health information, such as blood-glucose levels or blood-pressure readings, or lists of prescription drugs. Fitness apps can act as pedometers, keep track of workout sessions, and help people meet exercise goals. Apps also can provide more general information, such as the locations of pharmacies and hospitals, and link to GPS systems that give detailed directions to the nearest facility. And there are apps for both healthcare professionals and consumers that can help identify pills and tablets by color, shape, and markings.

The cameras on smartphones can be used to collect information using a bar code or a Quick Response (QR) code, and some health apps take advantage of this function. A QR code - that small checkered square that has begun to appear on products and in advertisements - can be used to link a smartphone to a website that promotes a product or brand. Once at the website, the consumer can obtain more information about the product or a coupon.

Bar-code readers in weight-loss apps such as Fooducate can be used to scan a product’s bar code to pull out extra nutritional information and help the user make healthier food choices. A bar-code scanning feature on one of Weight Watchers’ apps provides PointsPlus information for food items selected by the user. And scanners in pharmacy apps can read the bar codes on bottles of medications or patients’ prescription vials.

Even apps that are not specific to health and medicine may be useful for a pharmacist.

There are several language-translation apps that can help reduce communication problems, notably Google Translate, which can translate phrases in more than 65 languages and is compatible with both Android and iOS. Another translation app is Talking Translator.

Where to find apps

Currently, the main websites for apps are Google Play for Android-based apps, Apple’s App Store for iPhones and iPads, the Windows Phone Store for Microsoft Windows Phones, and Blackberry World. If you search for apps using the term “pharmacy,” you can find apps for pharmacists and apps for patients, and some that can be used by both. Both Google Play and the App Store allow users to review apps and to rate them with from one to five stars.

A popular series of consumer health apps is available from WebMD, one of the most consulted sites on the internet for consumer health and medical information. WebMD’s apps include WebMD, WebMD Baby, WebMD Pain Coach, WebMD Magazine on iPad, and also Medscape, an app created for healthcare professionals.

“WebMD’s mobile apps for consumers have over 16 million downloads. In addition, the Medscape app has approximately 3 million registered app users,” said Todd Zander, vice president of Mobile and Emerging Media for WebMD.

The WebMD app has a Pharmacy Finder that can help users locate the pharmacy nearest to them. It also can provide first-aid information and information about drugs, vitamins, and supplements. The first-aid information in WebMD’s mobile app is available even when the phone cannot connect to the internet. The WebMD Pain Coach app allows users to track their medications along with treatments that help them better understand pain triggers, set goals, and share progress with their physician.

WebMD’s Medscape app provides health professionals with medical news, formulary information, medical calculators, along with drug, disease and condition references, as well as a drug interaction checker, Daniel noted.

Several chain pharmacies have created apps for their patients. Walgreens’ app can be used to refill prescriptions, to remind patients when to take their medications, and to edit and order photos and prints. It can also download coupons and offers and locate the nearest Walgreens stores.

The most popular feature of the app is the Refill by Scan function, said Mai Lee Ua, a Walgreens spokeswoman. Using their phones, patients can scan the bar codes on their prescription vials to order refills. “It accounts for more than 40% of all online refills and generates more transactions than any other Walgreens app feature,” she said. Walgreens has recently made the prescription-refill software available to outside developers.

An app from CVS Caremark also enables patients to manage their prescriptions. “It allows patients to fill prescriptions, easily access their prescription history, and transfer prescriptions between different CVS/pharmacy locations, a feature that has been available since the app first launched and remains one of the most popular features,” said Erin Pensa, a company spokeswoman. The app, which the company says is used 1,000 times a day, also includes coupons and information on special offers, and has a tool that helps identify pills by shape, color, and markings.

Similar apps created by other chains for use by their patients include Winn-Dixie Rx and Fred’s Meds and Pharmacy.

Keeping track of meds

iPharmacy is another widely used pharmacy app, one that is not specific to a chain. For consumers, iPharmacy provides information on drug interactions and side effects, and helps them keep track of the medications they take, said Bill Cui, cofounder and CEO of MedConnections in San Jose, Calif. For pharmacists, the app provides real-time data-tracking and analysis of user behavior.

“Medication lists and reminders allow pharmacists to help consumers manage and reconcile their medications, especially for those who are taking multiple medications,” said Cui. “It is used by lots of pharmacists, lots of consumers, and many nurses.”

Because the iPharmacy app offers consumers a discount card and weekly deals along with price comparisons, pharmacists can use iPharmacy to attract customers, Cui added. Future versions of the app will include a daily reminder to patients to take medications and a function that will allow interactive communications between the consumer and the pharmacy. The current app has been downloaded more than 2.1 million times, Cui said.

Health-related apps are numerous, and more seem to surface each week, as more people use smartphones and tablets, and more pharmacies and drug companies discover their usefulness. Some of the health-oriented apps that already exist are up to their third and fourth versions as bugs are smoothed out and more features are added. As happened with computers, software programs, and communication technology, there will probably be a shakeout period as some less-than-successful apps - or whole phone operating systems - start to fall by the wayside. But at the moment, the future of mobile apps is already here. 

Editor’s Note: Drug Topics recently introduced its own app for viewing the monthly digital publication by iPhone or iPad. Download it at

Valerie DeBenedetteis a medical news writer in Putnam County, N.Y.



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