I have been thinking and writing about mobile apps recently and how they are used for medical and health purposes. Millions of apps designed for smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices have been developed since their first appearance in 2008. Many of these are health and medical apps. In mid-2014 there were over 100,000 health and medical apps listed in the two major app stores, Apple App Store and Google Play, and new ones are being issued every day.
Several health and medical apps feature on Apple’s lists of popular apps, and download figures provided by Google Play show that some health and medical apps on their store have been downloaded hundreds of thousands or even millions of times. In late 2012 a Pew Research Center survey found that 85 per cent of American adults owned a mobile phone. Fifty-three per cent of these were smartphones, and one fifth of smartphone users had used their phone to download a health-related app. The most popular of these apps were related to monitoring exercise, diet and weight. A more recent market research study found that almost one-third of American smartphone users (equivalent to 46 million people) had used apps from the health and fitness category in January 2014Public health researchers have sought to evaluate their use in health promotion campaigns and gathering data on health-related practices. But few researchers have investigated the broader social, cultural, political and ethical dimensions of medical and health apps.
Healthcare practitioners and administrators are also increasingly using apps as part of their professional practice. Hundreds of apps have been developed by hospitals and other healthcare providers. A growing number of medical schools are now offering at least part of their education via apps and require their students to own a tablet computer. In one study that surveyed American doctors, more than two thirds said that they used apps as part of their work. Another survey of medical students and junior doctors in a UK healthcare region found that over half of both students and junior doctors had medical-related apps on smartphones, with apps for medical education purposes the most popular. The medical literature now often refers to ‘prescribing’ apps to patients.
Despite the ever-increasing popularity of apps, very little academic research focused on these devices has been carried out in the social sciences and humanities. Numerous market research reports and medical journal articles have been published that provide some quantitative data on their content, accuracy and use, but these are largely instrumental and descriptive rather than critical.
In recent years I have been interested in developing a research agenda in critical digital health studies, including research into medical and health-related apps. I adopt a sociomaterial perspective drawn from science and technology studies to investigate the digital health phenomenon. From this perspective, mobile apps, like all technologies, assume certain kinds of capacities, desires and embodiments; they also construct and configure them. Apps are new digital technology tools but they are also active participants that shape human bodies and selves as part of heterogeneous networks, creating new practices. Indeed apps may be viewed as sociocultural artefacts, the products of human decision-making, underpinned by tacit assumptions, norms and discourses already circulating in the social and cultural contexts in which they are generated, marketed and used. As they not only present information and health and medicine but also often invite users to generate and share digital data about themselves, apps participate as actors in the digital knowledge economy.Read More… App-ography: A critical perspective on medical and health apps