From detecting signs of skin cancer to managing episodes of anxiety, the use of mobile applications for treating health conditions is on a rapid rise.
In just over two years, the number of health apps available to download has more than doubled to 100,000 and global use has risen by 62% since last December, confirming a shift towards do-it-yourself resources to make healthy living easier.
The rise of mobile health is driven by the obvious convenience factor for its users, combined with low costs and accessibility. Now, the potential of apps is being applied for treatment of one of the most severe mental conditions, affecting millions of women and many men worldwide: eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating.
The new wave of mobile resources for medical practice is seeing a huge growth, and sick patients have now become the first target market for publishers of apps in the health and fitness sector.
Charles Lowe, the president of the telemedicine and e-health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, believes that in just about three years many people could simply be prescribed an app when they go to the doctor.
“You can diagnose people with an app. You can treat people with an app too”, he said.
There are apps to record insulin levels, to adjust dosage of drugs or check symptoms of certain conditions. Cancer patients can receive emergency assistance via CERT (Cancer Emergency Response Tool), and tools like CF MedCare, for cystic fibrosis, help with the management of complex medication regimens.
Lowe suggested that another important use for apps would be in treatment of mental health conditions: "Apps are particularly appropriate for mental health. There is very solid evidence that apps for cognitive behavioural therapy really make a difference to people’s lives and help alleviate the effect of mental disorders ", he added.
The principles of cognitive behavioural therapy – where the therapist aims at modifying negative thoughts and behaviours through practical solutions – easily translate into digital platforms and they have been incorporated in most mental health mobile resources.
Advancing upon the few available apps providing information and academic references on eating disorders, Recovery Record and Rise Up + Recover – both founded by women operating out of the medical mainstream, one of whom suffered from an eating disorder herself – have led the way in treatment for anorexia, bulimia and overeating.
"Apps are particularly appropriate for mental health."
They have been developed as convenient alternatives to paper-based self-monitoring exercises, whereby the patient logs their food intake and makes notes of their related thoughts, feelings and urges about food.
Self-monitoring helps patients to think about triggers, based on foods and emotions, explained Kate Scruby, a London-based counselling psychologist with experience both in the NHS and private practice.
“In some other therapies [for eating disorders], this kind of apps could still be seen as patients not letting go of control, but if someone is using CBT and thinking about practicing from that angle, then it is fine."
Increasing awareness of eating patterns, compensatory behaviours (such as purging or excessive exercising) and effective coping skills, self-monitoring has a long history within this therapeutic approach; apps are just a new way of doing it.
Lauren Muhlheim, a clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist based in Los Angeles said: “Keeping of food records is something I have asked and expected patients to do since I started working with clients with bulimia in 1994. Many prefer the app, because carrying around a food diary or monitoring sheets is more inconvenient”.
Self-monitoring also gives patients a sense of accountability and accomplishment, added Marcia Herrin, nutritionist and founder of the Eating Disorders programme at Dartmouth College, the Ivy League university: “It helps patients feel supported. In sessions, reviewing self-monitoring records can lead to insights that wouldn’t come up otherwise.”
In fact, being able to share accurate records with their treatment team, patients receive more effective support, while clinicians supervise and track progress.