The benefits of building your own mHealth app

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

As a dentist working with the faith-based nonprofit Sending70, Patrick Singley has visited some of the most underserved parts of the world. Each time he delivered care, then returned home to Columbus, Miss., knowing that the next medical mission going to the same place and treating the same people would have to start from scratch.

Simply put: There would be no medical records left behind to chart his work or give his patients continuity of care.

Roughly three years ago, Singley decided to change that. He called dozens of programmers, researched a wide variety of cloud-based solutions … and then decided to build his own electronic medical record app.

Built on Apple's subsidiary FileMaker’s platform, the app is basically an "EMR in a backpack," giving doctors and nurses in remote locations the opportunity to collect data, store it in the cloud, use GPS to pinpoint treatment locations, even connect with specialists around the world.

Singley's app is now in use in Haiti, will be deployed at a Kenyan orphanage next January, and should be available to non-profits worldwide next year. He's part of a growing wave of do-it-yourself healthcare providers-turned-entrepreneurs who, instead of shelling out $80,000 to $100,000 for a custom app, are building their own.

"You have a lot of very smart people out their in healthcare whose time is valuable, who are increasingly tech-savvy, and … who have specific needs," said Ryan Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and services for FileMaker. "Clearly, there are a lot of scenarios where mobility is incredibly important.”

Healthcare apps already number in the hundreds of thousands and are available on iTunes and the Android platform. Though most are consumer-facing, a growing number are directed toward healthcare providers. They're designed by expert programmers or in-house at some of the more forward-thinking health systems like Intermountain, Partners HealthCare and Palomar Health.

But many hospital IT shops “are busy and don't have time for custom jobs,” added Rosenberg’s colleague Matt O’Dell, FileMaker technology marketing manager.

David Tierney, MD, used the platform at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis to develop an app for his IMBUS program for tracking portable bedside ultrasounds. The app enables residents in the hospital's internal medicine program to more accurately chart bedside ultrasounds via their iPhone.

Prior to developing this app, Tierney said, residents would write their notes out on paper – or forget to record them at all.

"This gives them something that's always in their pockets," Tierney said.

In Birmingham, Ala., Tom Cattell, vice president of information services at the Alabama Eye Bank, used FileMaker to create an app that allows field workers to instantly enter and retrieve information on available organs. The app enables field workers, who are on call 24 hours a day, to instantly match available tissue to prospective recipients, giving corneal transplant surgeons the ability to act more quickly. That process includes taking pictures, examining inventory, and determining where the tissue has to go and how fast it needs to get there.

"We have quite a lot of tissue that we have to track every instant," said Cattell, whose organization is one of the largest in the country, averaging around 100 donors and 200 donations each month. "What used to take a week to track down and gather data now can take five minutes. It's almost magical to watch.”

Singley said the ability to create his own EMR app "is a cool way for me to create organization and change the concept from short-term care to long-term care."

That's an important part of medical mission trips, where volunteers often have minimal medical backgrounds and need all the help they can get to deliver healthcare services and make sure those services have a positive impact.

And while app developing is a labor of love for people like Cattell, Tierney and Singley, it's not for everyone. It does take a lot of time and effort.

When asked if he'd design another app, Singley politely begged off. One game-changing app is enough for now. He has a young family, and undoubtedly more missions on the horizon.

"I don't think my wife would let me," he said.

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