Why mHealth Apps Shouldn’t be Called Apps

The estimated number of US smartphone users grew from 42 million to 61 million from 2009 to 2010.  The number of phone apps grew at a significantly higher rate.  Some of the key findings from “The Mobile Movement: Understanding Smartphone Users,” a study from Google and conducted by Ipsos OTX, an independent market research firm, are that 81% browse the Internet, 77% search,  and 68% use an app. Of course, a smart phone app must be distinguished from a mere website shortcut. There are an estimated 306,500 iPhone apps and 90,000 iPad apps and approximately 200,000 Android apps. According to a mobihealth news report, “The World of Health and Medical Apps” (http://mobihealthnews.com/research/the-world-of-health-and-medical-apps/), there are 5820 health, fitness, and medical apps.  Over the period spanning 2010, there were a constant 28% of apps that were opened only once and never again.

The popular saying, originally an advertisement, is “There’s an app for everything.”  That is getting to be true in the health sector as well.  The word app conjures up a cute entertainment or game program, a convenience tool to do anything from finding the closest clean restroom to getting a real live customer service representative quickly, or a quick way of obtaining news.  It is warmly received by the brain, much like the word puppy, kitten, or baby. Some trigger a response from our autonomic nervous systems as necessities and bring about immediate emotional feedback (a sense of security, a thought of comfort food or destination, a loved one, etc).  They are the source of banter between new acquaintances as ice breaking conversation bits, like the weather, music, or the movies were for older generations. The potential for the importance of mHealth in health care is such that medical apps should be distinguished in terminology from all other apps. Because of their impact on health, as well as the fact that some of them will literally be medical tools, this distinction is warranted. The change in designation would foster a different attitude towards these items. This is necessary in order for people to take them seriously, ‘using’ them daily if not more, and not abandon them in the same manner as the apps. This technology is in its marketing infancy.  Now is the time to design the language of the industry.  A change in designation from ‘apps’ will benefit all stakeholders (payers, providers, hospitals and other facilities, government agencies, and consumers) by having designations that will be more practical.

I do not propose proprietary names, but generic ones with practical significance. Medical apps may have wide and varied goals.  The mHealth app designations should be made with those in mind, yet keep the number to a practical minimum.  Some apps will fall into more than one category, and can be designated by the primary utility, or have its components separately designated, or to more than one, depending upon perhaps whether the designation is for regulatory, marketing, or other purpose. Apps may also morph via consumer demand, technological development, or both, thereby creating a need to change the designation.

There are presently health, fitness and medical apps for consumers and apps for medical professionals.  Mobile health apps deserve their own place and nomenclature in technical, social, and professional jargon. I would like to propose calling the mHealth app a “meddi” (pronounced meddee). The pleural would be “meddis” (pronounced medeez).  Beyond this initial designation, I would then divide them into learning or Lmeddi for pure educational applications conveying purely didactic information,  Hmeddi for health and wellness applications that are either interactive or messaging tools for maintaining health and fitness, and Rxmeddi for applications for the diagnosis and treatment of symptoms or diseases. These distinctions may help in organizing the meddis on phone, tablet, or other devices, for regulatory and potential reimbursement purposes, and for development and marketing purposes.

mHealth is going to create a new health care paradigm. Its importance therefore warrants its applications to be viewed and treated uniquely.  This is already evident with a separate iTunes ‘silo’ of medical apps, with government proposals for support and regulation, and with developing business models, (http://davidleescher.com/2011/09/23/business-models-of-mhealth/).  Its applications are deserving of a distinct terminology as well.

About davidleescher

David Lee Scher, MD is Founder and Director at DLS HEALTHCARE CONSULTING, LLC, which specializes in advising digital health technology companies, their partners, investors, and clients. As a cardiac electrophysiologist and pioneer adopter of remote patient monitoring, he understood early on the challenges that the culture and landscape of healthcare present to the development and adoption of digital technologies. He is a well-respected thought leader in mobile and other digital health technologies. Scher lectures worldwide on relevant industry topics including the role of tech in Pharma, patient advocacy, standards for development and adoption, and impact on patients and healthcare systems from clinical, risk management, operational and marketing standpoints. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine.
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