Choosing and using the right health apps for children

In this article, Dr Vikram Palit, explores how parents can make use of digital and get the best outcomes for their children.

Digital health apps have become an industry of their own. Like their forebears, medical devices, with every innovation comes an improvement in the way we do things, but also a degree of uncertainty. Uncertainty about health outcomes and what the net benefits are to the user,  the patient. For parents, there is an added degree of complexity; how can you use digital technology to get the best outcomes for your child, when there is a distinct lack of evidence that supports their use?

“From the convenience of your phone, you can monitor growth milestones, record blood sugar levels, receive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat depression and anxiety, and come ‘face-to-face’ with a doctor through the GP-at-hand service. So what, if anything, does a parent need to know when trawling through the ever-expanding universe of health apps? The truth is, we‘re not sure!”

Dr Vikram Palit is MD of the Healthcare Consulting Group and Paediatric Clinical Innovation Fellow at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust. Vik is an NHS Digital Pioneer Fellow.

The digital revolution in medicine is here (finally)

What we do know is that the digital revolution in medicine is finally here. The Secretary of State for Health, the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, has announced the phasing out of fax machines from the NHS by 2020. In any other industry, the fax machine is an obsolete technology, destined for the history books along with floppy disks, dial-up internet and Betamax. For the healthcare industry in the UK, transitioning from faxes will be an achievement.

As parents (and healthcare professionals) become better informed about technology, there is an expectation we harness digital technology to improve the way we deliver healthcare. There is also an expectation that the use of digital innovations in day-to-day clinical practice is based on sound evidence – that they work, and that they are cost-effective.

Until we have that framework in place (and a whole lot of work is currently being done by DigitalHealth.London amongst others to develop these very standards) there are few things that all parents, patients and users of health apps, should stick too:

1. Privacy – who else is seeing your data?

Always, always, always think about the information you are sharing. Ensure that any confidential data you provide remains confidential. Best check the company’s privacy policies, and if you are not sure, then don’t use them.

Apps on the NHS Apps library have met the stringent UK and European data protection laws and you can be reasonably confident they are safe to use.

2. Safe and Effective. This app could change your life- in more ways than you realise.

Apps today promise to change your life, ranging from monitoring your health remotely, giving you a few hours extra sleep at night, to helping to unlock your child’s inner genius. If it sounds too good to be true (child genius aside) or comes with a hefty price tag, ask a healthcare professional if it is the right app for you.

Recently, the NHS started to fund digital innovations like the myCOPD app, which is effective in both empowering patients to look after their chronic conditions, and helping healthcare professionals monitor symptoms remotely. This is a step in the right direction by supporting industry to develop digital technologies that improve patient outcomes.

3. Your digital health app is not a substitute for your doctor

Digital health apps, like a doctor’s stethoscope or blood pressure cuff are designed to help improve the health of their users. They are a tool, an enabler, and should make things more convenient, easy to use and engaging.

They are not a replacement for a doctor. They don’t have intuition, they shouldn’t be diagnosing and treating, and they can’t form a relationship with you.

The right tool for the job

A good digital health tool will help you on the patient journey, give you reliable information to stay on course, and alert your healthcare providers if you start to change course.

Any more than that, and you should treat the app in the same way you treat other well-meaning friends and family, who provide you with endless parenting advice – a polite nod and a cross-off the Christmas wish list!