Health apps are a catalyst in the drive to make healthcare more patient-centred, but while patients and the public are already embracing consumer-directed apps, healthcare professionals frequently lag behind and are poorly informed, experts warn.

If patients, the public and healthcare systems are to tap the full benefits of app technology, systems must adapt so that they are truly patient-centric and promote greater self-care - and apps can help here if they can work together more seamlessly, integrating an individual’s data on multiple healthcare needs and routines, says a report from the UK government’s ICT Knowledge Transfer Network and

The great advantage of health apps is that their infrastructure already exists outside health systems, potentially enabling them to catalyse moves to make healthcare more responsive to patients, says the paper, reporting the key findings of a cross-stakeholder meeting held in London recently ahead of the European Union (EU) Green Paper on Mobile Health, to be published at the end of March.

Speakers emphasised the importance of engaging doctors -  if they prescribe a health app, patients are likely to trust it, they said. 

But if apps are to move into mainstream healthcare, the regulatory requirements for prescribing them will need clarification, with perhaps some sort of accreditation system, it was suggested. The key here is trust, and no single entity - app stores, mobile providers, patients or consumers - can create the trustworthiness of apps in isolation, so it is likely that several bodies might take on joint responsibility. The creation of a single repository of public-oriented information on health apps was also proposed.

Speakers emphasised both the importance of maintaining high standards for health apps throughout their lifetime, and the significant challenges of doing so. One possible unfortunate consequence of implementing quality standards could be higher prices to users, thus undermining accessibility, which is a key virtue of health apps.

The adoption of smartphone technology will not create health inequalities - rather, it can increase healthcare sustainability, but the interfaces of smartphones and health apps must improve to become more readily usable by older people and those with disabilities, the meeting also heard.

Speakers warned that current regulations governing health apps are opaque and outdated, developers are unaware of their legal responsibilities and clarification is needed about whether health apps require a CE marking (ie, classified as a medical device).

However, they also noted that helpful advice for developers is available from the EU and national regulatory agencies, and that the EU has made clear that it does not want to discourage the burgeoning market for health apps by producing excessive red tape.