Do It Yourself Health

REGION – You know an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But can an Apple iPhone or iPad also keep the doctor at bay? According to a May 2011 Pew Internet survey, of the 85 percent of adults who have a cell phone, nine percent say they have an app that helps them track or manage their health. Currently, there are around 9,000 health apps in the Apple App Store. However, a recent report by the group MobiHealthNews expects that number to skyrocket to more than 13,000 by this summer.

While websites like WebMd and give a wide range of medical advice, phone apps feature specific areas, and learn more about it. They range from the light-hearted, like Perfect Bum, which shows people how to work out and tone their thigh and leg muscles, to weight loss, pregnancy trackers and even cancer-screening apps.

Skin Scan, for instance, allows people to take a picture of a mole and uses a mathematical formula to judge the potential danger. Another program, iRash, was created for physicians and provides images, diagnoses and treatment advice for more than 40 common skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Dermatologist Dr. Mark Saunders has mixed feelings about the abundance of medical apps available. "Knowledge and education is good," he says. "In this epidemic of skin cancer, I'm all for people knowing what to look for and early detection. However, dermatology is a visual specialty, and shouldn't be replaced with an app."

Dr. Raymond Dean, also a dermatologist, agrees. "I think some apps can be helpful, but I'm concerned about patients paying for advice on an app or online and not seeing someone face-to-face. You have to know the credentials of these people before doing anything foolish."

The idea of a "virtual doctor" also worries Dr. Roger Gerstle of Munson Family Practice. He says many health apps can be useful, like ePMR (personal medication record), which stores all your medical history for you. However, he warns an app should never replace a visit to your physician. "Apps for exercise and diet programs can be good, but the ones where you try and do a self-diagnosis concern me." He also adds there are plenty of good free apps available, and that he doesn't like the ones that sell products- like for weight loss.

Do you have you pill that you can't identify, or need a reminder to take your medication? There are also apps for that. The Pill Identifier is a searchable database of pill images which includes more than 14,000 pills. You can search based on imprint, drug name, color and shape. Meanwhile, The Pill Reminder alerts you when it's time to take your medication.

"A pill reminder is a good app to have, especially for teenagers going off to college," says registered pharmacist Mark Thompson of Thompson Pharmacy. "Kids don't respond too well to mom calling them to remind them to take their medicine."

Thompson adds some pharmacy-related apps are better than others, but says overall most are good and that he supports technology that makes people more cautious and aware of the prescription drugs they are taking.

But apps aren't just for when you're sick. They can also keep you healthy. Walkmeter GPS, for example, tracks the number of steps, speed and distance traveled each day. Calorie counting apps are also helping people lose weight. Ben Bogardus hopes one of them can help him shed some unwanted pounds. His goal is to lose 72 pounds by the end of the year.

"This past Christmas I made the commitment I was going to lose weight," he says. "I was tired of the guilt I felt every time I saw my parents – I was bigger every time I visited them."

On January 2, 2012 he downloaded MyFitnessPal to both his iPhone and iPad. The free app helps people lose weight by tracking their caloric intake. Using their current weight and goal weight, it tells them how much they should eat and exercise in order to drop the pounds. It also has more than one million foods in its library, so you always know how many calories you're eating.

Bogardus says with his busy schedule, it's not realistic he'll be hitting the gym five times a week, so he says MyFitnessPal is a good fit for him.

"It has shown me that losing weight is a mathematic formula. It's calories in versus calories out," explains Bogardus, who has lost 14 pounds as of mid-February.

Pat McDonald, General Manager of Premier Fitness & Health in Traverse City, is also an advocate of apps that keep track of your calorie intake for the day, and recommends them to his clients.

"I think they're great. The apps really educate people on a lot of different things." He adds that he has no worries about a "virtual trainer" replacing a trainer at a traditional gym.

"There's a personal touch with a trainer, the human element. Someone is here waiting for you," says McDonald. "Your virtual trainer won't call you if you don't show and keep you motivated to work out."

At Munson Community Health Center, registered dietician Diane Roach says she has seen an increase in the number of patients using apps like MyFitnessPal and SparkPeople to track their eating habits. She says while they are good for weight management and give realistic facts on calorie intake, she does have some concerns.

"I worry people might get too focused on a certain number, or obsess with how many calories they have left for the day instead of eating a healthy, balanced meal," she says. "I don't like numbers to take over nutrition."

Regardless of what apps people download, or how they use them – one thing is certain. There's money to be made. A recent study found the average price of medical apps rose from $2.77 to $3.21 in the five months between February and July 2011. If this trend continues, consumer research company Frost & Sullivan estimates health apps could bring in $392 million in revenue by 2015. BN