When Vishal Gondal’s calves started hurting every time he went running, the 36-year-old marathoner from Mumbai didn’t panic. He keyed in the details of his pain on his smartphone and got an instant solution. “I was told to change my running shoes,” says Gondal.
What helped him was a mobile health application (or app) called WebMD Symptom Checker. It is an app designed to help users understand the meaning of various medical symptoms and provide them with a solution to their problems. “The app helped me identify the problem,” says Gondal, founder CEO of the gaming portal India Games. “I later checked with my physician who ruled out any complications.”
Gondal calls himself an early adopter of health apps. But across India, more and more people are now using mobile apps — software designed by developers that can run on a cellphone — for health problems. Clearly, apps — which can be anything ranging from a game to a photo-editing tool to a foodie’s resource centre — are now being lapped up by those seeking instant answers to health or fitness issues.
“I have an iPhone and use the apps Road Bike Pro for cycling and RunKeeper for running,” says Mumbai-based photographer and writer Aneesh Bhasin. “My cycle has sensors which connect to Road Bike Pro and I use a chest strap which connects to both the apps and monitors my heart rate,” Bhasin says. “I cannot imagine cycling without the apps and sensors.”
According to Manav Arya, producer with Walt Disney, Mumbai, health apps keep him motivated to meet his fitness goals. For three months or so, he has been regularly using apps such as MyFitnessPal (which helps users track calories), RunKeeper (to follow exercise regimens) and Fitness Builder (a portable personal trainer that guides the user through various exercise sessions). “I use these apps several times a day to stay more active and check my progress,” Arya says.
Mobile health applications or mHealth apps (both fitness and medical) were among the top 10 apps used by consumers in 2012. An app like Fitbit allows users to track fitness goals while Lose It! counts calories consumed. Diagnostic apps help the user identify whether a headache is a migraine. For doctors, apps such as Epocrates provide drug information and costs while Medscape is a quick medical reference app.
Some of these health apps are free, while the others can cost anything from a few dollars to $1,000, depending on not just the kind of app but the phone that it is being used for.
A recent report by research company Technavio suggested that globally the mobile health apps market will grow to $4.1 billion by 2014 (from $1.7 billion in 2010). According to a report released last year by global accounting consultancy group PricewaterhouseCoopers, the mobile healthcare services will be a Rs 3,000-crore market in India by 2017.
“These figures show that mobile health apps will revolutionise the healthcare industry to a certain extent,” maintains Dr Ruchi Dass, founder and CEO, HealthCursor Consulting Group, a Hyderabad-based mobile health consulting company. “Health apps will make information more accessible, portable, build reliability and will lead to better awareness in healthcare,” Dr Dass adds.
German mobile market research specialists Research2guidance points out that by 2016 India will be the third largest market for smartphone shipments with almost every 10th smartphone finding its way to India. So several Indian firms that till now have been running healthcare services through online portals are looking at launching apps for the cellphone market.
One such healthcare firm is DocSuggest which was launched in 2011 as an online portal and tele-service to help patients search for doctors for specific ailments and book appointments. “Last month we launched Docsuggest as an app because most people would like to connect through their mobiles,” says Shantanu Jha, founder of the Hyderabad-based company. The app has a database of 10,000 doctors in Delhi, the National Capital Region, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Hyderabad-based DoctorsTime Health Services also offers a similar online service along with alerts for check-ups. It also engages escorts for elderly patients who need assistance for hospital visits. “Our app will be launched in four to six weeks. It will be a free app which will allow patients to access a doctor anywhere anytime,” founder A.N. Sarma stresses.
Earlier, most such apps were launched by pharmaceutical, fitness and healthcare companies. Now doctors too are bringing out apps. “I realised that there was a need for not just a directory of doctors but even a review of their work,” says Dr Vivek Sama, a Delhi-based orthopedic surgeon. Last week he launched an app called Smidr that carries a database of 80,000 doctors from across the country listed according to their specialisation and location. “We will ensure that every patient review is genuine through cross-checks,” he adds.
At Jothydev’s Diabetes and Research Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, patients will soon benefit from an app that will help them access lab reports. “I am working with a software company to develop an app wherein a patient can put in his blood sugar data, physical activity and food consumed and a graph will be generated which can be sent across to the doctor. We will launch it in a month or two,” says managing director Dr Jothydev Kesavadev.
Then there are apps which will help physicians in diagnosis and treatment. Dr Vishal Bansal, CEO, Promedik, a healthcare solutions start-up company in Delhi, has compiled ailments in the form of flow charts that would help a physician see different levels of diagnosis and treatment. “The system will help physicians make accurate diagnosis and treatment decisions. It is a portal now and the app will be launched by the end of the year,” Dr Bansal says.
Physicians swear by the assistance provided by these apps. “The mHealth apps are useful to me as I don’t have to find a textbook or a computer when I am looking for some quick information for reference,” says Dr Siddharth Sehgal, a neurologist from Florida. “I also find them very helpful when I am teaching medical students or informing patients as I can show them relevant pictures to get my point across,” he adds.
But as apps proliferate, healthcare providers issue a note of caution. “When apps are for wellness purposes, consumers can pick one that they are comfortable with as this is based more on guidance than on treatment. However, medical apps both for patients and doctors need strict approval processes,” says Dr Dass. “One should not forget that an app is not a replacement for a physician but a value-added service,” warns Dr Bansal.