Whether you got on the smartphone bandwagon by choice or were hauled aboard by an insistent friend or relative, chances are good you have a smartphone. If so, you may be pleased to learn that your phone can be an excellent tool for your health. As with any tool, you’ll want to learn how to use it as well as its pros and cons—and remember that no tool is perfect for every job. To find out more, read on.
Make the Most of Your Phone’s Features
Your Phone’s “Reminders” Feature
Both iPhone and Android smartphones come equipped with a robust “reminders” function you can use in a number of ways. For example:
- Create customized recurring reminders to record your blood pressure, take medication, or go to the gym.
- Set one-time reminders to schedule checkups or refill medications. You can set these months or more in advance.
- Use location-sensitive reminders to prompt you to complete important tasks while you’re out. For example, you can have your phone alert you to pick up your medication when you leave the office.
For a step-by-step tutorial on the iPhone’s Reminders feature, click here.
For Android devices, click here.
Alarms on Your Phone
The alarm clock on your phone sounds continuously until dismissed. For this reason, some people prefer to use alarms to remember to take their medication. You can set as many alarms as you need, and you can also have a customized message appear on your phone’s screen when the alarm goes off. You can use these messages to label recurring alarms with medication names so you don’t forget which alarm is for what. For example, if you are supposed to take your blood pressure medication at 6:00 a.m. and your cholesterol-lowering medication at 8:00 a.m., set your 6:00 a.m. alarm to read “Take blood pressure med” and your 8:00 alarm to read “Take cholesterol med.” If you take a medication at specific intervals, your phone’s timer can also help you avoid taking it too soon or too late.
For instructions on using the clock feature on an iPhone, click here.
For Android devices, click here.
Your Phone’s Calendar
Schedule calendar events to help you remember appointments – for example, with your healthcare provider, cardiac rehab program, or the friend you walk with three times a week. When you enter the event information, include location, directions, or items you need to bring to the appointment, such as your list of questions to ask your doctor or your Symptoms Log. Set an alert so your phone reminds you that the event is coming up.
Block off time on your calendar for exercise. Like reminders, calendar events can be set to recur at whatever interval you prefer. If you go to a gym, include travel time in your event to be sure you have plenty of time to exercise once you get there.
To learn to use the iPhone Calendar app, click here.
To see how to set up your Android calendar app, click here.
Prepare Your Phone in Case of Emergency
There are several simple things you can do to set up your phone so that it can be used on your behalf in an emergency.
- Use an ICE app. ICE stands for In Case of Emergency. There are many apps (or mini-applications) for smartphones that store emergency medical information, such as blood type, medications, hospital preference, and more. Some ICE apps can make this information into an image that you can display in the background on your phone. Simply entering “ICE app” as a search term in a Web search engine or an app store search window will locate a variety of these apps.
- Activate Find My Phone. The Find My Phone app for iPhone (available here) and Device Manager for Android smartphones (available here) enable you to locate your phone via a password-protected Web site. Once you download the app, it will require activation. Learn how to activate Find My Phone for iPhone here or Device Manager for Android here.This can be very helpful if you lose your phone, but perhaps more importantly, if you give a loved one your login information, they’ll be able to find your phone - and you - in an emergency.
- Label your Contacts. If you keep a list of contacts on your smartphone, add the label “ICE” next to those you would call in an emergency. (For example, “Susan Smith—ICE” would indicate that you want this person contacted if there is an emergency.) This is a fairly common notation and can be of help to those who need to know whom to contact on your behalf in an emergency. To see how to manage contact information on an iPhone, click here. For contact apps that work with Android devices, click here. As your phone may be less accessible than your wallet in an emergency, also put this information on a card that you keep near your driver’s license or ID.
Apps for Your Health
You can also download health-related apps to your smartphone. Roughly half of those who own smartphones have downloaded apps in the “health and fitness” and/or “medical” categories. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these Mobile Medical Apps (MMAs) range enormously in price - even into the hundreds of dollars. Most, however, cost an average of 2 dollars.
In September 2013, the FDA began overseeing some (but not all) aspects of mobile medical apps. Most types of MMAs, including the ones listed below, must register with the FDA and fall under the FDA’s “enforcement discretion” umbrella, meaning that the FDA does not regulate (or approve) them, but reserves the right to do so. For more information, click here.
When searching for a mobile medical app, understand that there may be limitations to any app, do your own research, and then talk to your doctor. The types of apps listed below can be found by entering the terms in bold text into a Web search engine or an app store search window. To purchase apps for your iPhone, you can go directly to the iTunes App Store by tapping the pre-installed “App Store” button on your phone. For Android devices, launch the “Google Play Store” app on your phone. Some types of apps to explore:
- General Medical Information apps offer you access to medical information via your smartphone. Medical information apps can help you stay abreast of new studies and developments in medicine, learn more about a condition affecting you or a loved one, and have informed conversations with your physician. Keep in mind that any medical information you find on an app or the Internet, including that found on this site, is not a substitute for working with your physician. Discuss any questions you have with your doctor or other healthcare provider.
- CPR and First Aid apps have step-by-step, visual guides to first aid procedures, CPR, and defibrillator use. It’s preferable to take a course in CPR and first aid and use the app as a refresher if you need it in an emergency.
- Hospital Locator apps will help you find the closest hospital to you if you are in an unfamiliar location. Some of these apps also have information regarding particular medical services, such as stroke programs and emergency cardiac services. You might consider using a Personal Medical Record app to store your health history, test results, medication history, and more for easy reference and sharing with physicians and hospitals. Check to be sure that the app encrypts your information in compliance with privacy (HIPAA) standards. Be aware that some health record apps store your information on your phone, while most store your records online in an encrypted database. If you opt for the security of storing your records on your phone, make sure you back up your device’s content to your computer.Some physicians and facilities offer their own apps for patients to view their records and manage appointments. Ask your physician’s office if they have such a service.
- If you need to keep track of your blood pressure and/or heart rate, think about using a blood pressure and/or heart rate tracking app. Most apps in this category are very simple to use, allow you to use your doctor-approved equipment to take readings, and put a wealth of information at your fingertips for your next visit. The more advanced apps in this category have analysis features, letting you send your readings to your doctor, remind you to take your blood pressure, and even alert you of concerning trends. As with any tracking system, these apps are only useful if you use them consistently! Some apps in this category are FDA-regulated. These apps use your smartphone’s existing technology and/or an externally worn device to turn your smartphone into a medical device (a blood pressure cuff, a heart rate monitor, or even an ECG machine). For a partial list of apps like this which are FDA-approved, click here. Above all, ask your physician if you’re considering using an app or phone-connected equipment to take any medical reading on a regular basis.
- Nutrition information apps offer a wealth of information on different types of foods and their nutritional content and value. Many will let you scan product barcodes with your phone in the grocery store. The phone will then show the nutritional information of the product you’ve scanned and compare it with possibly healthier alternatives. If you are watching your food intake very closely or have allergies, be sure to double-check the information you receive; many of these apps rely on information entered by other consumers.
- Many sodium trackers are an excellent tool for heart patients and are very easy to use. Just look at the food label and enter your sodium intake into the app, which will keep track for you and let you know when you’ve reached your daily limit. Simply recording your sodium intake can raise your awareness of the salt in the foods you eat—and help you reduce the amount you consume daily.
- Diet trackers, if used regularly and with a doctor’s approval, can help you plan your meals and monitor your nutrition and calorie intake. Some are linked to name-brand diet programs, and most can be tailored to your specific dietary needs. The most comprehensive of these put an enormous amount of information and functionality at your fingertips—such as dieting articles, blogs, and discussion forums - which is empowering for some and overwhelming for others. If you fall into the latter group, you may opt for something with fewer whistles and bells.
- Fitness apps are another popular subset. If you’re interested in one, shop around and see which one best fits your needs. Some apps will plan a complete exercise routine for you based on information you provide, while others let you do your own planning and use the app as an exercise journal. Many come with video demonstrations of proper and safe exercise technique. As always, check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
- Pedometer apps use your smartphone’s accelerometer to count your steps and/or tell you how much distance you covered on your daily walk. Some can also be linked wirelessly to a wearable pedometer for tracking your steps even when your phone isn’t with you. As of this writing, these fall into the “discretionary enforcement” (not regulated) category with the FDA.
Finally, if you’re a fan of gadgets, you’re in luck. High-tech, wearable activity trackers or monitors (such as some pedometers) can collect and send data to your phone about your movements throughout the day and, if you wish, at night too. The accompanying apps give you access to your data on your phone. Some trackers will vibrate or beep to remind you to get moving.
Your phone is an amazing piece of technology and a useful thing to have in your personal health toolbox. However, no smartphone, app, or add-on device, no matter how high-tech, is a substitute for working with your healthcare provider toward a healthier you.