Prognosis for medical apps is guarded

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As the use of mobile medical and health apps explodes, health care providers are trying to figure out how to work with applications that can literally deal with life or death information.

In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the humanoid crew members of the Enterprise wore little boxes near the waistlines of their pajama-like uniforms. While their purpose wasn't explained in the film's dialogue, these were supposed to be medical telemetry devices that would periodically scan each crew member and report back to sickbay if something were remiss.

For many things in Star Trek, such as cell phones and voice-activated computers, art became reality -- and it's happening again. In this case, our "medical telemetry devices" are devices that are with us as much as those fictional Starfleet scanners were with Admiral Kirk and his crew: the near-ubiquitous smartphone.

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The explosive rise of medical applications that run on smartphones and tablets has been noted by the medical profession for some time. Indeed, health care professionals are behind much of the innovation occurring with medical apps, as they seize the opportunity to build tools they can use on their iOS and Android devices.

But just as all new waves of technology bring with them room for growth and innovation, there are also risks that must be mitigated as well. And with medical apps, the risk isn't just a crashed app or lost data -- it can also be a human life.

Who's in the waiting room?

Wading into the medical application sector is a complicated business. Just ask Morgan Reed, a programmer on the advisory council of mHIMSS. mHIMSS is the mobile group of the larger Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) non-profit, an organization that works on improving IT systems for the healthcare industry.

Reed can paint a broad picture of the state of healthcare IT these days. Right now, healthcare IT is undergoing a major retooling of its own: there's a government-mandated shift to convert all healthcare records into electronic format, not to mention the need to comply with new regulations coming into effect as part of the Affordable Care Act.

"Last year, the government invested $38.7 billion into converting to electronic records," Reed said, emphasizing some of the churn that's going on in medical IT right now. Into that mix, Reed added, you have all these new health and medical apps jockeying for the attention of consumers and health care providers.

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