Saturday, April 18, 2015
Thursday, April 16, 2015
But if those consumers are already healthy, the apps won't necessarily do them any good, according to a new report in The BMJ, a British medical journal.
On Tuesday afternoon, for instance, the top 10 free health and fitness apps for iPhones included MyFitnessPal, a calorie counterand diet tracker; the FitBit activity tracker; Pacer, a pedometer and blood pressure tracker; and Period Tracker Lite, a menstrual-cycle tracker, according to data compiled by App Annie, an analytics firm.
For consumers with concerns of a more medical nature, apps in the Google Play store, among others, offer all kinds of advice, self-diagnosis and treatment. One is marketed as an HIV risk calculator, another is a self-described self-test for erectile dysfunction, and a third purports to offer home remedies for cold sores, colitis, conjunctivitis and constipation.
An article published in The BMJ on Tuesday evening, however, questions whether such consumer health apps provide any real health value to already-healthy consumers – and whether the apps could even cause harm by stoking unneeded anxiety among the worried well.
Doctors don't yet have definitive answers to these questions, partly because smartphone apps are so new and partly because government health authorities regulate consumer health apps at their own discretion, depending on the possible risks to users. As a result, many health and fitness apps lack rigorous clinical evidence to demonstrate they can actually improve health outcomes.
The medical journal article, titled "Can Healthy People Benefit From Health Apps?," lays out arguments for and against the apps by juxtaposing the opposing views of two doctors.
Arguing in favor, Dr. Iltifat Husain, the editor in chief of iMedicalApps.com, a review site for medical professionals, contended that some apps, by encouraging healthy behavior, could hold great potential to reduce the rate of illness and death.
"They can help people to correlate personal decisions with health outcomes," Dr. Husain wrote, "and they can help doctors to hold patients accountable for their behavior."
He recommended that doctors become more involved in educating the public on which health details to track and which apps to use. If doctors waited for scientific studies to prove the benefits of health apps, he added, they could lose their power to influence patients to "the industry dictating which tools people should use."
To provide a dissenting perspective, The BMJ enlisted Dr. Des Spence, a general practitioner in Glasgow. He argued that many health tracking apps encouraged healthy people to unnecessarily record their normal activities and vital signs — turning users into continuously self-monitoring "neurotics." He recommended people view these new technologies with skepticism.
"The truth is that these apps and devices are untested and unscientific, and they will open the door of uncertainty," Dr. Spence wrote. "Make no mistake: Diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people."
Although both doctors agreed there was no evidence that health apps had caused harm, federal regulators in the United States have been cracking down on health apps that make deceptive claims — an issue with the potential to cause mistreatment or misdiagnosis of medical problems.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
One night in 1982, John Mumford was working on an avalanche patrol on an icy Colorado mountain pass when the van carrying him and two other men slid off the road and plunged over a cliff. The other guys were able to walk away, but Mumford had broken his neck. The lower half of his body was paralyzed, and though he could bend his arms at the elbows, he could no longer grasp things in his hands.
Fifteen years later, however, he received a technological wonder that reactivated his left hand. It was known as the Freehand System. A surgeon placed a sensor on Mumford's right shoulder, implanted a pacemaker-size device known as a stimulator just below the skin on his upper chest, and threaded wires into the muscles of his left arm. On the outside of Mumford's body, a wire ran from the shoulder sensor to an external control unit; another wire ran from that control unit to a transmitting coil over the stimulator in his chest. Out of this kludge came something incredible: by maneuvering his right shoulder in certain ways, Mumford could send signals through the stimulator and down his left arm into the muscles of his hand. The device fell short of perfection—he wished he could throw darts with his buddies. But he could hold a key or a fork or a spoon or a glass. He could open the refrigerator, take out a sandwich, and eat it on his own. Mumford was so enthusiastic that he went to work for the manufacturer, a Cleveland-area company called NeuroControl, traveling the country to demonstrate the Freehand at assistive-technology trade shows.
Mumford was in Cleveland for a marketing meeting in 2001 when he got news that still baffles him: NeuroControl was getting out of the Freehand business. It would focus instead on a bigger potential market with a device that helped stroke victims. Before long, NeuroControl went out of business entirely, wiping out at least $26 million in investment. At first, Mumford remained an enthusiastic user of the Freehand, though one thing worried him: the wires running outside his body would sometimes fray or break after catching on clothing. Each time, he found someone who could reach into his supply of replacements and reconnect the system. But by 2010, the last wire was gone, and without the prospect of tech support from NeuroControl, the electrical equipment implanted in Mumford's body went dormant. He lost the independence that had come from having regained extensive use of one hand. "To all of a sudden have that taken away—it's incredibly frustrating," he says. "There's not a day where I don't miss it."
Monday, April 13, 2015
Sunday, April 12, 2015
People living without disabilities can take for granted how much the built environment is suited for them. It's easy to walk into a space without noticing the couple of steps you took to reach the door or to forget that the tight spaces in your favorite cozy cafe might make it difficult for a blind person to navigate.
Jason Da Silva cannot take such things for granted. A filmmaker whose work has aired on HBO and PBS, Da Silva was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 25. He now uses a power scooter to get around.
The loss of his mobility made Da Silva acutely aware of the difference between accessible and inaccessible spaces. Routines like taking the subway became impossible and favorite spots to meet with friends became unreachable. Da Silva made a documentary, When I Walk (available on Netflix), about his battle with MS and his gradual loss of mobility.
Wanting to do more than document the challenges he faced, Da Silva set out to take concrete action that would make it easier to get around with a disability. Together he and his wife, Alice Cook, created AXSmap, a crowdsourced map to rate businesses based on how accessible they are.