Health apps threaten to overwhelm NHS

Keep fit: By 2022, 105 million fitness trackers are expected to be sold each year worldwide.

A report has claimed that unreliable fitness apps are sending healthy people to the doctors. Thousands more health apps promise to improve our lives, but some say they do more harm than good.

There are more than 165,000 health apps available across the world. They claim to improve our lives in countless ways, from regulating diet and measuring exercise, to scanning for diseases and improving mental health.

But some think that the growing influence of medical technology could have dangerous consequences.

According to a new report, a “dystopian” future could emerge in which hospitals and doctors’ surgeries are overwhelmed with people “erroneously told to attend by their artificial intelligence (AI) enabled Fitbit or smartphone.”

Doctors have already reported patients booking appointments after health apps have said their heart rate was abnormal, when in fact they were perfectly healthy — putting additional strain on already stretched healthcare providers.

“Some say AI is going to provide instant relief to many of the pressures healthcare systems across the world are facing,” says Professor Carrie MacEwen. “Others claim AI is little more than snake oil.”

For example, while one study suggests that people who use fitness apps are more likely to exercise in their spare time, another found that those using the trackers lost less weight than those who did not.

One thing is beyond doubt: health tech is booming. In America alone, wearable medical device sales are projected to increase to over $55 billion by 2022 — up from $10.5 billion in 2017. However, concerns remain that some of this technology is unproven, gives unreliable results and can aggravate certain conditions.

There is evidence linking calorie-counting apps to increased “eating disorder attitudes and behaviours”, while another study found just 15% of NHS-approved apps for treating depression were effective. Others argue that the 10,000 steps doctrine pushed by step-counting apps could be harmful for some people.

“You shouldn’t need a tracker to know if you’re tired,” says psychotherapist Amy Morin. “I think some people can lose touch with the human connection they have to their bodies.”

But are medical apps actually bad for us?

Data self

As with any new technology, there are upsides and downsides. With the NHS under tremendous strain, there is a real potential for technology to revolutionise healthcare for the better. At the same time, how do we know which of these new technologies to trust? And can a machine ever really replace human care?

Then there is our wider relationship with data. Do we need to be tracking the smallest fluctuations in our health? Could this actually be making us more anxious, and less able to get on with our daily lives? Fundamentally, in translating so much of ourselves into numbers on a screen, are we forgetting what life really feels like?

You Decide

  1. Do we rely on technology too much?
  2. Is it possible to be too health-conscious?

Activities

  1. In one minute write down all the benefits and disadvantages of smartphones. Discuss your ideas as a class. Overall, do you think smartphones have a positive or negative impact on our lives?
  2. Read the Stuart Heritage piece in Become An Expert. How does he use language to make the reader agree with his point? Note down effective uses of vocabulary and language techniques. Do you agree with his argument?

Some People Say...

“To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”

Buddha

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In recent years there has been a particular spike in demand for apps helping with mental health issues. Global revenue for these products reportedly increased by 40% in the first quarter of 2018. In terms of physical health, around three million fitness trackers are sold in Britain every year.
What do we not know?
What the overall impact of digital health technology will be. Some people express hope for the future alongside concern for how certain products have been developed. “There is every likelihood that apps will actually be very useful in managing all sorts of ailments, physical and psychological,” says Dr Steve Flatt. “But unfortunately the designing and testing stages seem to have been largely missed out in the race for profits.”

Word Watch

165,000
According to a 2015 report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
Report
By the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.
Dystopian
An imagined state or society where there is great suffering and injustice — the opposite of a utopia.
Study
“Mobile Exercise Apps and Increased Leisure Time Exercise Activity,” by Leib Litman.
Less
According to the 2016 study “Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss.” One possible explanation is that those with trackers may become demotivated when they feel like they cannot achieve their goal.
Evidence
See “Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology,” by Courtney Simpson.
Study
By the University of Liverpool.
10,000 steps
The idea that we should all take 10,000 steps per day to stay healthy. See the Stuart Heritage column in Become An Expert for more.