Have you ever googled your symptoms? Everyone wants to avoid trips to the doctor. These apps may give patients insights and help doctors diagnose better and faster

Austria formulated its first eHealth strategy in 2005. Since then, the Electronic Health Record ELGA was launched and hospitals, doctors and pharmacies have been linked with an eMedication system. Photo: shutterstock
Austria formulated its first eHealth strategy in 2005. Since then, the Electronic Health Record ELGA was launched and hospitals, doctors and pharmacies have been linked with an eMedication system.
Photo: shutterstock

It can be hard to talk to a doctor. Those few minutes go by so fast. Even if you plan out what you want to say, critical information gets lost in the fray. The worst part is, the problem is getting bigger all the time.
European healthcare systems are under increasing pressure to provide cost-effective, sustainable care with limited budgets. With an aging population and increased incidence of chronic disease, healthcare has become a battleground for efforts to improve efficiency while not jeopardizing quality of care.
In search for the magic pill for Europe’s healthcare malaise, doctors, patients and entrepreneurs are increasingly turning to their smartphones – and the world of apps and the internet.

Healthcare anywhere, anytime
Mobile health (mHealth) is a rapidly developing field of medicine and public health initiatives that draw on mobile technologies – cell phones, smart watches and on-the-body devices that collect and store health data.

The European Commission estimates that 3.4 billion people will own a smartphone by 2017, with half of them using health applications. Over 100,000 mHealth apps are already available, offering anything from diet programs to early diagnostics. About 70 percent of these are targeting consumer fitness, while the rest are geared towards healthcare professionals and diagnosis.

Prof. Eugenijus Kaniusas, Head of the ­Biomedical Sensors group at the Vienna University of Tech­nology (TU), sees great potential in this fledgling sector. “Are you interested in fitness in terms of your work-life balance? I am. Are you interested how much your fitness improved as related to yesterday after you slept more than eight hours? I am.”

But there is much more than fitness alone to collecting statistics on your health profile. This treasure trove of data could be a game changer for managing chronic diseases, caring for the elderly and treating psychological disorders, all of which currently require continuous and expensive attention by professionals. And monitoring anywhere, anytime means that these apps improve not only access, but also quality of care.

Prof. Kaniusas agrees that both aspects are key. “Applying mHealth potentially provides a more complete picture of the patient’s health. Uninterrupted monitoring has the potential to recognize temporal, instructive episodes of imbalance that could be helpful for diagnosis.”


The handheld doctor
But mHealth is very new and few of the apps have been independently validated. Still, a few Austrian companies are ahead of the curve with mobile technologies approved as medical devices.

The Vienna-based startup Scarletred is already using cell phone cameras to monitor skin conditions and the effects of drug treatment. With their  approved Scarletred®Vision technology, they are participating in several advanced clinical ­programs, including a cooperation with the Salzburger Landeskliniken (SALK) for treating Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), whose sufferers’ fragile skin has led them to be called “Butterfly Children.” Scarletred’s innovative technology could provide a contactless documentation method that could significantly improve patient care.

“I like to think of our technology like a thermometer. Before the invention of thermometers, doctors simply used their hands to feel a patient’s temperature. So our product is like the first thermometer for dermatologists, providing objective quantification of visual skin changes. Everything that the dermatologist can see, we can measure,” says Dr. Harald Schnidar, CEO and founder of Scarletred.

For patients with diabetes, the Vienna-based startup mySugr has developed a Logbook which currently has more than 600,000 users in Europe and the U.S. In Austria, costs for the Logbook are already covered by social insurance.

Approval is not so easy
However, getting mHealth apps approved in Europe is still a tricky affair because a regulatory framework for approving such new devices is still being developed.

“The U.S. tends to adapt new technologies quicker than Europe,” says Dr. Schnidar. “They already have a regulatory framework in place, specifically for mHealth. In Europe, there is not even a category for developing mHealth, or even for software. But this will change.”

EU regulations for mHealth are expected to be in place in the next few years. But first, a number of issues need to be dealt with. “Privacy and security, patient safety, a clear legal framework and better evidence on cost-­effectiveness are all required to help mobile health care flourish in Europe,” the European Commission wrote in January, 2015.

Safety and security are a big concern for medical apps. Studies have shown time and again that selection based on popularity does not ensure accuracy of medical information. That is why several major medical initiatives aim to develop a more scientific rating system to help both consumers and patients choose the one that is best suited for their condition.

What should health app users do until the wild west of mHealth is tamed in Europe? Make sure to do your homework. Look for apps written by doctors and medical professionals and for companies that are developing medical devices and not just toys. And start taking your mHealth seriously – you might be sending the information to your doctor sooner than you think.

Made in Austria

Some Austrian eHealth apps have users all over the world

Founded by diabetics for diabetics, mySugr collects information about your blood glucose levels, meals and physical activity all in one place. The mySugr Logbook app is a registered class 1 medical device in the U.S. and EU. Or as the company states on their website “mySugr makes diabetes suck less.”

Developed by Österreichische Krebshilfe, this cancer help app is providing patients with high-quality information on available therapies, tips from medical professionals for coping with the disease, and a diary to track disease development, side effects from medication, and doctor’s appointments (available in German only).

So you live in the countryside and your local doctor isn’t equipped to treat you? Medcubes has you covered. The award-winning telehealth MedCase contains several diagnostic tools and an iPad so medical findings can be analyzed by specialists any where in the world.

Scarletred®vision enables remote monitoring of skin conditions and treatment effects. The technology is GCP compliant and is currently being used in clinical trials. The product is provided via a flexible online subscription model (basis, biopharma and expert versions).

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Lanay Griessner is a scientist and freelance journalist living in Vienna. She has a PhD in molecular biology from the Medical University of Vienna and is currently working in the biotech industry.