Nowadays both patients and doctors are using an array of digital devices for medical purposes, but medical apps are proving more popular among patients than with healthcare practitioners.

Digital Divide between Medical Practitioners and Chronic Illness Sufferers?

Medical apps are now all the rage and are proving to be a major element in eHealth, but how do patients suffering from chronic illnesses actually use them? Answering this question was the basic purpose of a survey entitled ‘Santé mobile et connectée: usages, attitudes et attentes des malades chroniques’ (Mobile connected health: use, attitudes and expectations of chronic illness sufferers), carried out by French non-profit digital health think-tank Lab E-santé in February and March this year.

The survey, carried out among 2,226 chronic illness sufferers, polled patients suffering from a range of conditions, including diabetes (24%), hypertension (8%) and thyroid imbalance (8%), all of whom use mobile devices. Some 71% of the survey respondents own a smartphone and/or a tablet – 27% a smartphone, 12% a tablet and 31.8% both. This high device ownership rate does not however mean that they are all assiduously downloading apps; only one patient in five reported having done so. This low level of enthusiasm can be explained by the fact that 31% say they are not familiar with the concept of apps and have not really had the opportunity to learn about them. Some 25% of sufferers simply do not see how such software tools could be useful. So how might these patients be won over to the idea of using of mobile health apps? Among those who have never downloaded one, 52% say they would be happy to change their minds if their doctor advised them to do so and 24% would do so if someone with the same illness recommended it. But on the other side of the coin, 27% do not feel they are ready to download this type of tool.

                                          Digital devices used by chronic illness sufferers

The 20% who have actually downloaded health apps did so after making a search at app stores or on the web. A mere 4% of the patients responding to the survey had downloaded an app on the advice of their doctor. These figures suggest that people tend to download apps spontaneously and of their own accord. So what type of apps do patients opt for? Some 32% of respondents chose to download tools to monitor their condition, followed closely by apps which provide information on a specific illness (27%), the latest medical news (23%), plus apps that allow patients to interact with health-related connected objects (18%).

Some 60% of the app users polled for the survey believe that medical apps enable them to manage their illness more efficiently.  This would seem to be a good reason for talking to their doctor about using them. However, 57% of the users said they do not talk to their general practitioner about how they use them. This high percentage is perhaps understandable given the fact that many doctors are worried about the growing use of digital technology among their patients and so those who do try to talk to their doctors about digital tools might not get a sympathetic hearing. When it comes to talking to each other, 55% of the patients surveyed find it easier to talk to a friend or another person suffering from the same condition. 

We might therefore conclude that there is an urgent need to build the doctor/patient/digital technology relationship, given that both physicians and patients are connected nowadays but do not use medical apps in the same way. The danger of this difference in usage could result in a potentially disastrous digital divide between patients and practitioners. If apps are to fulfil their full potential to help manage chronic conditions, the doctors clearly need to be convinced and encouraged to take more interest in digital tools.  One way to do so might be to develop apps in partnership with doctor/patient organisations in order to obtain the views of the potential users on both sides of the equation.

However, gaining the trust of general practitioners vis-à-vis medical apps is not likely to be easy, given that there is no guarantee of their security, and no reliable quality label yet in place.  The fact that the HON (Health on the Net) certification system initiated by the Switzerland-based Health On the Net Foundation has now been abandoned as ineffective basically leaves users with only one solution – relying on the judgement of other users.

By Anthéa Delpuech