Can an app a day keep the doctor away?

Technology and health are merging like never before

The relationship between healthy living and technology is “a-changing”, as Bob Dylan might put it.

Consider the app SuperBetter, created by game designer Jane McGonigal after she suffered a mildly traumatic brain injury that kept her bed-ridden for over a month.

“It’s really designed for you to take control of your health in a way that allows you to be more optimistic, more motivated, more resilient, and better able to share what you are going through with your friends and family,” McGonigal tells reporter Edie Lush at HubCulture.

Finding herself mired in depression, McGonigal – who holds a PhD in performance studies from the University of California – decided to transform the recovery process into a game. What she would create was a mobile application to help others get over their hurdles, including programs targeting weight loss, stress reduction, sleep problems and depression.

McGonigal’s app illustrates how technology is making certain medical tools available by the press of a button.

Importantly, a clinical trial at Ohio State University tested the app for concussion and brain injury recoveries and gave it positive reviews.

“The investigators believe that Dr. Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter, and positive play games like it, are promising novel interventions that could make a positive difference in the ability of our patients to successfully transition to self-care after discharge from therapeutic care.”

There are thousands of health-related apps now available, many of which are certified by the FDA, in a worldwide mobile health market that’s projected to earn $26 billion in revenue by 2017. 

Winnipeg app designer Gareth du Plooy, who works for a company called Shopify, is familiar with both the technology (his Receipt-Mate was recently listed in the top 20 most popular productivity apps) and medical worlds – his immediate family members are career doctors and healthcare professionals.

He notes that the merge between the two can be tricky.

“Once you start building technologies where governments get involved, more and more people have a stake in it.”

Health-care related apps serve various purposes. Some can even monitor patients outside of hospitals, or track vitals.

SuperBetter works as a challenge/reward system, where the user is given mini challenges or real-life enemies which must be defeated in order to move forward. This device acts as one’s own personal goal.

Dan Bailis, a University of Manitoba psychology professor, can see why it’s had such successful results. 

“There is no doubt that reward systems are effective in changing and maintaining healthy behaviour,” he says. “But I would add that doing only this is not a credit to either apps or psychology. Both are now capable of doing much more, involving biofeedback, planning, objective monitoring and social and professional support that is both timely and tailored to individual user characteristics, including personality.”

Du Plooy predicts even more is yet to come. “Every medical student I know does everything on their iPhones now. I think more and more you’ll start seeing really cheap consumer apps coming together with these really fancy machines you see in hospitals, because people in these institutions use them themselves.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 23, 2013)

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