recent article in the July issue of The Journal of Family Practice discusses the current and future impact of apps on family medicine practice.

The article, written by Helen Lippman,  makes some poignant statements regarding the use of smartphones and apps by physicians and by implication family medicine physicians.

Here, we review some of the points made in this piece and highlight some of the important considerations for the use of apps in family medicine.

Use of Smart Phones and Apps

As the article indicates, smartphone use is now common among physicians with 74% using them–according to one survey.  

However, this is in line with use of smartphones by higher income people in the country. What’s more important, however, is that physicians actually do work with their smartphones. Essentially, this new communications tool has been incorporated into their work environment; for example, 43% of physicians use their smartphones to look up drug information.

However, there’s still a need for more information and ongoing assessments of how clinicians integrate these devices into practice, if at all. No survey targeting family physicians is discussed which is an indication of the need for data on the use of apps by this group of clinicians.

Some Anecdotes on App Prescribing

Although there is still the need for better data on whether physicians are prescribing apps, the article notes some interesting anecdotal findings. One example is Navy family physician Dr. Kelly Latimer who prescribes apps that can help patients keep track of health problems. One such app she prescribes for the frequency of headaches is the app iHeadache.

She also prescribes apps for anxiety like Relaxation Techniques or Breath2Relax and also suggests apps like Calorie Count and MyFitnessPal to help patients lose weight and get in shape. Why does she choose these apps and not others? The article does not make this point, but this is critical for understanding whether physicians should widely adopt apps or if this is simply one of the small points that distinguishes one clinician from another. An underlying question–assuming apps are utilized by more family physicians–is whether patients need smartphones and their related data plans in order to get the best quality care? This may be an important concern moving forward.

App Education for Physicians

One clear implication of this article is that there are a group of family physicians who are beginning to use these apps, while others are not. However, the group that does not use these apps may recommend them to patients if the value of the apps were proven to them. As the board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) indicated in Lippman’s article, apps will be viewed as beneficial to family physicians as long as they contribute to, rather than detract from, collaboration between patients and physicians.

There is also a growing need for professional associations such as the AAFP and other entities that produce and disseminate clinical guidelines to consider the role of apps in clinical practice. When they can enhance quality of care, this should be noted in guidelines and other statement in order to help clinicians understand how to best incorporate them into practice for greater patient wellness.

Currently, without an organized approach, some patients may be missing opportunities that could improve the quality of care they receive. Research is needed to determine when this may be the case. There’s also the need for continuing education focused on which apps are useful for patients based on any existing research and based on experiences of physicians in various fields.