The USA.gov IT elves celebrated our nation’s birthday by unveiling a general app store for citizens that includes four mobile health care utilities for use on Web-enabled cell phones and smartphones. Not all the apps in the store are free, according to the background information published on the website, but the health care ones released last weekend are.
Those apps include a BMI calculator, a nutrition database, MedLine Plus for looking up abstracts of articles published in scholarly journals and an app for checking today’s UV index in your area — the latter just in time for a summer heat wave baking the eastern seaboard.
The store lists the health apps among such others as MyTSA, which dispenses preflight packing advice for travelers; Recalls.gov, an app that keeps consumers abreast of food, drug and product recalls; and Alternative Fuel Locator, which aids drivers behind the wheel of alternative-fuel vehicles. Those, and an app to keep up-to-date on who are FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, for those Americans who fancy themselves bounty hunters. A few apps feature specific Apple iPhone OS editions; some feature Google Android editions. Most have OS-independent, “mobile Web” editions, too, accessible via browser.
Clearly these are consumer apps, but health care practitioners potentially could use them for teaching patients healthier habits.
They’re also a way for the federal government to lead by example in its health care IT buildup, sharing its data resources with vendors, physicians and insurers. All of health care’s public and private stakeholders are trying to cut health care costs by delivering care more efficiently through electronic medical records. Another way they’re trying to cut costs is by empowering consumers to take better care of themselves: Porting good information to cell phones is one way to do that. These apps are tools that give consumers action items that help them make healthy decisions, such as wearing sunscreen when the UV index warrants it or choosing the sorbet over the cheesecake after a heavy main course.
The federal app store also is a demonstration project that bodes well for Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Isaac Kohane’s and Dr. Kenneth Mandl’s federally funded, open source health care-specific app store. It might take some time for their project to catch on among software developers and their health care provider customers, but the unveiling of these apps shows that the government clearly supports such initiatives and considers smartphones to be serious tools worth devoting developmental resources to, not fad-fueled technological baubles.