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An App-le a day keeps the doctor away – or does it?

Waheed Jayhoon


“As both technology and health policy evolve, opportunities to harness data—be it through online Google searches or the use of genetic information— will change the way that we think about the provision of healthcare.”


With one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world, behind only Norway, South Korea and the Netherlands, there isn’t much Australians aren’t doing once they reach into their back pocket. Between messaging, social media, music and video streaming, emails, and the occasional game of Jetpack Joyride®, the sheer amount of data is enough to put anyone into a head spin.


While this has led to an increased uptake of digital health tracking, technology needs to be capable of enabling positive health outcomes that go beyond telling you how many hours of REM sleep you got last night. Increasingly, people want access to healthcare solutions that are faster, cheaper, personalised, and more convenient. However, of the 73% of Australians seeking access to health services online, only 6% manage to find a source they can trust (Australian Digital Health Agency). Unsurprisingly, WedMD just doesn’t cut it.


Regardless, consumers are still accessing information online relating to their health problems, often walking into the clinic with preconceived diagnoses and expectations of treatment options. In some cases, people might even decide to forego face-to-face medical advice entirely if they deem their own research sufficient, increasing the likelihood of misdiagnosis and mistreatment.


This highlights the need for regulation of health apps, a function that is being performed in some cases by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Certain types of software already meet the definition of a medical device and have regulatory approval in Australia, such as smartphone apps that can calculate your required insulin dose based on your blood glucose levels. However, apps which are simply sources of information or tools to track your lifestyle do not meet the TGA definition of a medical device, and so are not regulated.


Recently, CSIRO’s Future of Healthreport envisioned the health system in Australia in 15 years’ time shifting fundamentally from disease management to disease prevention. In particular, the report emphasised the importance of precision medicine, an approach to healthcare where disease treatment and prevention is highly customised for an individual based on their genetic profile.


For example, preventative genomic screening, which is used to determine whether an individual has a higher susceptibility to a particular cancer based on variations in their genes, could be a transformative change to healthcare if widely adopted. Indeed, screening everyone’s genome would carry higher upfront costs, and the proportion of the population where the risk of cancer has been increased by a gene variation would be relatively low. Arguably, this would still fall below the financial burden of treating a late-stage cancer, but there are still a number of ethical, legal, and evidentiary challenges that need to be overcome before this becomes viable. As both technology and health policy evolve, opportunities to harness data—be it through online Google searches or the use of genetic information— will change the way that we think about the provision of healthcare. In the meantime, we may have to continue booking in those doctor’s appointments.


* Waheed Jayhoon is a Policy Officer at the Department of Health. All views are his own.

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