Mobile technology is changing the world today—including how physicians are trained and how patients get care and information.

Take, for example, apps that can stream live medical procedures.

Next week Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel will broadcast his first live procedure using mobile video streaming app Periscope. Spiegel will stream his procedure of micro-needling, an in-office skin treatment that facilitates growth of the collagen protein.

While Periscope isn’t considered only a health app as it can stream live video of anything—from protestors in Ukraine to the sunrise from a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, according to its website, the example is evidence that mobile apps are gaining traction in health care, just as they have in other parts of consumers’ lives. Today mobile apps help consumers track their fitness, aid doctors in monitoring patients with chronic illnesses, and much more.

The number of mobile health apps in the United States now exceeds 165,000, according to a new independent study by healthcare research firm the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Additionally, the number of iOS mobile health apps specifically has grown 106% to reach 90,055 in 2015, up from 43,689 in 2013.

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However, as of now, the market is fragmented. 40% of health apps have fewer than 5,000 downloads, the research finds. What’s more, just 36 apps account for nearly half of all health app downloads and 12% percent of health apps account for more than 90% of all consumer downloads.

Many health apps focus on general wellness—for example, tallying mobile users’ daily steps or calories. For example, Apple Inc.’s Health app comes preinstalled on iOS devices and integrates with other general health apps like Lose it!, Weight Watchers, FitStar, Sleepio and Nike+. Apple CEO Time Cook said earlier this year that more than 1,000 such health apps had integrated with Apple’s Health App.

However, the study from IMS finds that health apps are becoming more sophisticated by integrating with health care systems to help medical professionals monitor and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Today, one in 10 apps now has the capability to connect to a device or sensor, such as a heart rate or blood pressure monitor, that can provide feedback to health professionals. Additionally, nearly a quarter of consumer apps are now focused on disease and treatment management, while two-thirds target fitness and wellness.

The study also finds that health app developers are focusing more on connectivity. For example, more health apps can post results to social networks. Today, 34% of health apps can connect to social networks, for example, to show how far an app user ran, up from 26% in 2013. However, it finds just 2% of health apps can communicate with healthcare provider systems, unchanged from 2013.

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The study also finds:

  • Over 90% of health apps are free to consumers
  • Over 50% of apps have narrow functionality which limits their role in healthcare
  • The typical 30-day retention rates for mobile health apps prescribed by a healthcare provider are 10% higher than average and 30% higher for fitness apps
  • Fitness apps are the most common, accounting for 36% of health apps. Healthcare provider and insurance apps account for the smallest percentage of apps with 2%

The research finds that movement is underway to build evidence supporting the value of health apps in patient care. For example, the number of clinical trials using mobile apps has more than doubled in the past two years, rising from 135 to 300.

“The majority of research studies to date focus on app usage rather than their effectiveness in improving patient outcomes or lowering healthcare costs,” the report notes. “However, momentum is building for observational studies and randomized clinical trials that will yield evidence to support the value of apps, specifically type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and mental health.” Of the large health app clinical trials that recruit patients, 53% are directed at the senior population.

Most healthcare professionals interviewed for the report say they think mobile healthcare can reduce the healthcare costs and encourage patients to take a more active role in improving their health. They also say that a top priority for mobile healthcare is for apps to integrate with electronic healthcare records. Top barriers mentioned include: limited connectivity and integration with health provider systems; privacy, security and regulatory uncertainties; lack of measurement of app accuracy; and slow adoption of mobile health apps by elderly and non-English speaking patients and consumers.

The study is based on IMS Health’s AppScript Score database and analysis of 26,864 apps available in the U.S. Apple iTunes and Android app stores—a representative sample of the most popular mobile health apps, according to IMS. The IMS Institute also conducted interviews with health and technology professionals about the status of healthcare apps for its research.

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