By Elizabeth Simpson The Virginian-Pilot.
It's not as sophisticated as a tumor-removing cyberknife, but there's a handy medical tool that fits right in your pocket: your mobile phone.
During the past year, I've been collecting news about health apps. I've been amazed at the scope. There are a couple you can use as a stethoscope; iStethoscope, for instance, uses an apparatus connected to your phone to listen and record and send your heart activity to your doctor.
There's also an app -- PoopMD -- that lets you upload photos of your baby's poop and find out whether your newborn needs to be checked for jaundice. Too much information? Sorry!
Here's one that monitors your sick child's temperature (iTherm) while they're sleeping and sends a text alert to you if it's too high, and another (Pacif-i) for a "smart pacifier" that has similar features.
Wake up feeling depressed at 4 in the morning? Download Big White Wall to create a brick in a virtual wall to write down your worries, and get support making it through the night. In the morning, a relaxation app, Serenita, can measure and log your stress and give you tips for getting a handle on it.
And I love this one -- the Sickweather app that scans social media networks like Twitter and Facebook for people who chat and whine about being sick and records the hotspots. OK, OK, not scientific, but pretty darned interesting!
All of these come with giant "consumer beware" tags. Some are free; some have monthly fees that could eventually make you sick to your stomach. Effectiveness is also all over the map. The federal Food and Drug Administration has begun monitoring them, but only if they meet the definition of a medical device.
For instance, a fitness app would fly under the federal agency's radar, but an app that monitors blood glucose would require FDA clearance.
Something else to keep in mind: Some studies are showing people are quick to download apps, slow to stick with them. And let's be honest, is there really a substitute for hands-on, face-to-face human help? Or putting down your phone a minute and stepping into the sun for a mental health boost?
They may not be the be-all-end-all, but apps can be useful tools and fill gaps in the system. I checked around and found three examples of local health care providers using health apps to keep in touch with patients and improve their health.
Medical records MyChart is an app you can download on your phone or computer that helps you exchange medical information with your doctor and other health care providers. There must be agreeable parties on either end to make it work. Several health systems in the area are urging patients to make use of it.
Dr. Meredith Rose, who works at Providence Family Medicine, a Sentara Medical Group practice in Virginia Beach, began using MyChart to communicate with his patients about five years ago. Now, about three-quarters of his patients use it, mostly through computers. Patients can use the program to refill prescriptions, make appointments and ask questions about their health.
Lab reports about cholesterol levels and X-ray information are automatically delivered to them 36 hours after they're available. That gives Rose time to review and make a personal call earlier, if he feels it's warranted. He said some doctors are resistant to the idea, worried that a patient might overreact to news: "The world is becoming more consumer oriented, and patients think, 'This is my information, and I should have access to it.'"
Patients can also sign up for an e-Visit for minor ailments, such as pink eye or a urinary tract infection. Patients answer a series of preloaded questions that pertain to their problems, and then Rose evaluates that against their health records and figures out what they need, whether it's an office visit or a prescription. It automatically becomes part of the medical record.
At first, he thought MyChart would be most popular among his younger patients, but he's found his older patients are just as likely to sign up.
One of his patients, 72-year-old Ruth Cohen of Norfolk, said she and her husband signed up for MyChart several years ago.
Recently, after her husband started a new medication, Ruth Cohen sent a message to Rose through MyChart. By morning, she had an answer.
"I can send an email day or night and get a response within 24 hours," she said.
The program also has a way you can agree to allow certain family members or caregivers the same access you have. Rose, who's 62, said he used a slide rule in college, but he was quick to see MyChart technology was going to help him and his patients.
Health text messages Text4Baby was launched in 2010 by Voxiva for pregnant women and new mothers. It's a free app and text messaging program that's reached more than 900,000 mothers with three free text messages a week about labor signs, prenatal care, immunization reminders, nutrition tips and safe sleep advice.
Here's an example: "If you have any signs of preterm labor -- cramps, belly tightening, low back pain, bleeding, or watery, pink/brown discharge -- call Dr. right away."
The app also has videos, quizzes and information about what your baby is developing at a specific week of pregnancy.
The Virginia Department of Health and several health insurers have partnered with Voxiva to get women signed up for the app. For instance, Optima Health partnered last year with that company and TracFone wireless to get free phones in the hands of Medicaid families.
So far, they have distributed 12,000 phones to Medicaid families. An evaluation published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in July found the text reminders increased the odds of pregnant women and new mothers getting flu vaccines.
Besides Text4baby, there's a fleet of other text message programs: Text4kids, with tips for keeping children healthy; Text2quit, for tips on quitting smoking; and Care4life to control diabetes.
Fitness apps Apps for fitness are the most widespread in the health field, and they range from free ones you can download on your phone -- MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal -- to more expensive wristbands like Fitbit and Apple watches.
My mobile phone came preloaded with a health app. I can tap and find out how many steps I've taken: 2,500 during a regular day, but I don't take my phone with me for my runs or daily walks with the dog. It's nice to get away from the electronic tether, to be honest.
My daughter has an Apple watch that not only tracks her calorie intake and steps, but also buzzes her to stand up when she's been sitting at her desk too long.
Participants in the Healthy You for Life weight management program at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters are fans of fitness apps. Monet McCann, 16, has been in the Healthy You program since this summer. The Norfolk teen uses the MyPlate app to track her calories and activity.
Before she started using it, she would sometimes skip meals and then make up for it later in the day. The MyPlate app sends her an alert that she needs to eat a snack or meal so she eats a more balanced diet throughout the day.
She also receives encouraging text messages with exercise suggestions from Healthy You outreach coordinator Jessica Estey. Questions like "What was the best part of your day?" And "Great job!" after she joined the swim team. Or, "Remember every day may not be good BUT there is something good in every day! Stay focused! Be happy! Be healthy."
They give Monet a lift: "I get a kick out of making them happy and getting them excited."
Like so many things in our electronic world, it's the humans at either end of the devices that make all the difference.