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March 10, 2021
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A sharp increase in the adoption of digital health apps

The most popular health apps over the last year all reflected the challenges of lockdown life, according to the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Applications (ORCHA).

According to its report, apps for stress anxiety, weight loss, and smoking cessation were among the most downloaded, while Sidekick Health was among the most favored apps by health and care professionals in 2020.

Other key findings from ORCHA’s report were that downloads of apps supporting consumers with mental health needs increased by nearly 200% from summer 2019 to summer 2020.

Meanwhile, downloads of those supporting consumers with diets and weight loss rose by 1294% from mid-2019 to mid-2020, and downloads of apps helping consumers manage their diabetes rose by 482%.

The report also provided a “heatmap” of searches for apps showing that demand for digital services increased around March 2020, when the pandemic began to seriously affect the UK and its national lockdown measures were introduced.

“This demonstrates the speed at which digital health was identified and embraced as a solution to remote care needs, and the increasing difficulties in accessing face-to-face care,” the authors wrote.

During the initial phase of the pandemic, ORCHA found that the most popular digital health tools were focused on respiratory disease, followed by the mental health aspects of COVID-19, followed by healthy living and exercise.

Weight management tools have been an enduring need, according to the report, and stayed popular throughout the pandemic.

Expanding digital health into new areas

Going forward, there may also be a need for more interventions in patients from some groups, and the authors noted that COVID-19 has resulted in less monitoring of diabetic patients, with less blood sugar monitoring and a decreased awareness of complications requiring face-to-face contact.

While blood glucose testing and visual inspections of feet are possible using video consultation technology, other digital health solutions could be used to help patients manage their conditions.

The mental health aspect of the popular apps was also noted by authors, a possible signal that they are being viewed as viable support tools.

The report found that all the popular apps were in the healthy living categories, showing a convergence of thought between healthcare professionals and patients.

COVID-19 recovery and health apps

While the hope is that the pandemic will be in retreat by the end of 2021, restrictions will still be in place in some areas well into the year. This could lead to digital healthcare being used in parts of health systems where it has not yet been routine, such as maternity, women’s health services, cancer, cardiovascular, and stroke services.

Many services have struggled to keep pace with demand, with long referral and waiting times, and patients don’t want to “bother” services during the time of crisis because of concerns about their own safety and an altruistic desire to ensure health systems are not overloaded. This could present several digital health opportunities as the pandemic recedes, with the potential for services to unlock greater personalization, monitoring, and engagement of patients.

The message from the report’s authors is that this transformation will not be about the kit but a change of culture and that digital solutions will have to go beyond conferencing to digital solutions that provide greater personalization, monitoring, and engagement of patients.

Emerging digital advocates

They warned that health apps do not work when “bolted on” to services and instead must be integrated into them. Still, there are signs that the technology’s potential is beginning to be realized, notably with the “beacon” organizations in the NHS leading the way.

“There are more and more clinicians who have been won over by digital and have gone from total cynic to learner and advocate,” authors said.

NICE has also taken the lead by guiding those looking to introduce digital health within behavior change services.

This could drive the use of digital health in 2021 and encourage its use in other areas if there is more support from other NHS functions.

Procurement could also be boosted by a “clear and appropriate” commissioning system that will enable healthcare professionals to prescribe digital health tools that have been tested and meet standards.

Education and training will be needed; 93% of health professionals believe health apps can improve patients’ health, but the majority have not been trained to use them. Better training would then also build trust in specific digital health tools.

The report found that digital health is likely to be adopted across all of the NHS’ other treatment areas with a prediction that health apps will become household names in the same way that Zoom, Teams, and Hangouts are for communication.

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