An app can never replace a doctor

The concept that a medical app can replace a health care professional is myopic. At best, health apps can alert users to potential problems, but only a trained health care professional can diagnose problems.

People are living longer, but there is a prediction of a global lack of healthcare workers to look after them, with a shortfall of 9.9 million doctors, nurses, and midwives expected by 2030. Together with the growth in wearables—projected to be worth nearly $120 billion by 2028—we are seeing growing democratization of knowledge of one’s own body, with tech enabling consumers to take a more active and regular role in their healthcare.

Too many marketers believe that older consumers are not technology-enabled. That’s a mistake also. Older adults stream movies and TV shows, video-chatting with loved ones and colleagues, and buy new intelligent devices, such as TVs, phones, watches, tablets, home assistants, and home security.

With social distancing restricting social interaction, adults 50 and older not only snatched up new devices but also were more likely to use them daily. They purchased more smart TVs, smartphones, tablets, wearables, and audio devices such as earbuds and headsets.

Marketers should recognize that today’s older consumers “are focused on anti-aging and breaking the mold of what 50 looks like,” researchers at California State University and Southern Connecticut State University wrote in a study published by the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business. Any companies that tap into this potential stand to gain. In any industry, the first brand to transform its outreach to the 50-plus set could win over millions of consumers — consumers with more money to spend than their children.

The “hot” market is in apps the can diagnose and help treat problems from AFIB to depression, but there are risks. Mental health apps, for example, are exploding. According to the Lancet, a medical journal, the incidence of depression and anxiety has soared in the pandemic—by more than 25% globally in 2020. That, combined with more people using online services, has led to a boom in mental-health apps. The American Psychological Association reckons 10,000-20,000 are available for download. But the evidence is mounting that privacy risks to users are being ignored. No one is checking if the apps work, either.

According to The Economist, “underneath, though, a trauma lurks in some corners of the industry. In October 2020, hackers who had breached Vastaamo, a popular Finnish startup, began blackmailing its users. Vastaamo required therapists to back up patient notes online but reportedly did not anonymize or encrypt them. Threatening to share details of extramarital affairs and, in some cases, thoughts about pedophilia on the dark web, the hackers reportedly demanded bitcoin ransoms from some 30,000 patients. Vastaamo has filed for bankruptcy but left many Finns wary of telling doctors personal details, says Joni Siikavirta, a lawyer representing the company’s patients“.

No universal standards for storing “emotional data” exist. John Torous of Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed 650 mental-health apps, describes their privacy policies as abysmal. Some share information with advertisers.

The Economist

Physicians have not bought into the hype around apps. Cardiologists, for example, don’t trust EKGs from wearables and will conduct their tests.

While Apple has been developing more in-depth health information, it requires people to have their iPhones with them or use an Apple watch that needs charging every day.

So what’s the potential value of medical apps? They can alert people to potential issues that hopefully lead to appointments with qualified HCPs.

What’s so ironic is that pharma could develop an app to compliment some of their drugs. Still, the app would have to be clinically tested and demonstrate patient efficacy and better outcomes.