The term mHealth (Mobile + Health) was coined by Professor Robert S. H. Istepanian in 2003. One of the first mHealth systems was unveiled in 2005 at the University of London under the supervision of Professor Brian Woodward. It was a unique system that made it possible to monitor the state of human health and transfer data (like blood oxygen saturation, blood pressure and glucose level, and heartbeats) from a mobile phone to any hospital or clinic anywhere in the world.
Now there are over 45 000 healthcare apps available on Apple App Store worldwide and a similar number on Google Play. Even though different in usefulness, convenience, reliability, and security, there are patterns in development worth exploring.
In this article, we’ll look at what makes medical app development different, what challenges healthcare developers have to face, and how to deal with them. For a more overall look at the process of healthcare app development and all its major aspects take a look at our comprehensive healthcare app development guide.
Essential functions of healthcare and wellness apps
In the modern world, monitoring your health is no longer a habit of healthy lifestyle aficionados only. Like any fashion trend, for many people, it turned out to be a necessity. The number of smartphone users all over the world is growing at a steady rate, consequently swelling the ranks of people who profit from using some kind of health-related app. Mobile application developers have created a great variety of applications that help to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Using a smartphone, you can measure your heart rate, count steps, calories, and the amount of water consumed, or see how well you slept last night, save all the data, and access it later to analyze what you can do to make your life better.
In other words, people use health and wellness apps because they provide solutions to multiple problems. There are:
- Apps for collecting and storing various medical metrics (pulse, pressure, heart rate, sleep, etc).
- Fitness applications (exercise complexes, performance monitoring).
- Healthy lifestyle apps (advice on an active lifestyle, dieting, etc).
- Applications for monitoring drug intake, and treatment management.
- Apps for people with a specific disease.
- Applications for interacting with a medical center or clinic.
There is also a variety of medical applications for healthcare professionals and establishments primarily intended for:
- Remote diagnosing and monitoring.
- Getting advice.
- Medical establishment management.
Healthcare app development features and challenges
Healthcare app development is a complex process some parts of which can present a problem for the inexperienced. Let’s take a look.
Security and privacy: laws
Data security and protection are among the most important matters nowadays regardless of the industry, mainly because of the need to stand against cyber attacks. But there are few other factors in the case of medical apps, where it really does matter how much your users trust you. Our experience with developing solutions for the financial industry tells us that healthcare app development companies share some issues with financial ones in this respect. This research is an important stage of secure healthcare app development.
All health-related information is highly confidential. People expect medical apps to be no less secure than banking ones. They need to feel comfortable that their sensitive information is absolutely secure. Any information about diagnoses, analyses, prescriptions, appointments, contacts, and insurance data needs to be kept safe, plus any other information that is considered personal from a common-sense perspective.
The users’ rights to security and privacy are protected by law. There are certain requirements that you need to follow if you want your app to appear on the market at all. If your mobile app involves gathering, sending, or storing protected health information, you’ll need to adhere to the standards that vary for different regions and departments.
For example, in the USA you will have to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) — a US federal law that regulates the protection of personal health data. Who has to abide? Individuals and organizations in the health sector. After the adoption of the latest amendments in 2013, the law also includes organizations that are not related to health care directly, but provide services related to the processing, storage, or transfer of personal health data.
Every state also has its own privacy laws that affect healthcare development. Generally, HIPAA as a federal law prevails over state ones except when the latter has greater standards of protection of privacy than HIPAA. One such example is the California Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (CMIA).
Do you always have to abide by HIPAA? You don’t if your app does not imply sharing protected health information with a Covered Entity (doctor’s offices, insurance companies, etc). In other words, HIPAA doesn’t apply to information that customers collect for their own use and in the majority of cases, fitness or meditation apps do not fall under this regulation, though each case requires separate consideration.
In the European Union, there is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — a set of regulations for companies that collect and process data from EU residents. It aims at increasing the level of protection and giving EU citizens control over their data. The requirements of the act apply to both organizations registered in the EU and companies located in other countries, if they provide services to citizens of the European Union, or otherwise collect their data.
In the United Kingdom, it’s the Data Protection Act (DPA) that updates data protection laws. It is a national law that complements the GDPR. In Canada, it’s the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) — a Canadian federal law that regulates the use of personal information in the course of business.
Requirements of the legislation or their-party companies have the possibility to become a major issue during the app development process. When we were developing an application for the WYSPR social data collection agency, we were confronted with Facebook’s tightened security requirements for the ability to get personal user data, and Apple App Store’s initial refusal to publish an app due to its novel business model. We solved this problem through multiple requests, expanding the app’s functionality, and better describing the business idea to Apple’s staff.
Security and privacy: Data encryption and log-in security
Another aspect of security and privacy in healthcare app development concerns the ability of developers to increase the security of processed and stored data. Both incoming and outgoing data should be encrypted. Make sure your users feel confidential and safe sending and receiving such data as medical files. Encryption techniques can scramble all the data in such a way that nobody can ever read it as it is, and it is quite difficult if at all possible, to decipher this data unless you have authorized access. So even if somebody hacks your system, they will have no use for the encrypted data.
To decipher this scrambled data, you need the encryption code. There are special protocols such as Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) that are used for data encryption.
Use multi-factor authentication. It’s an access system based on several “pieces of evidence”. For example, in the case of a healthcare mobile app, it might be the combination of a password and voice identification, fingerprint, or retinal scan.
APIs and integrations
Today, many if not all healthcare startups are developing solutions that make use of fitness or medical gadgets. Remote medical care itself has become possible largely thanks to the distribution of gadgets that can measure and transmit vital signs. It means that the healthcare technology ecosystem may consist of several devices such as smartphones, smart wearables, smart fitness equipment, hospital equipment, and more. The integration of vastly different technologies and platforms requires various sorts of APIs (application programming interfaces) that bridge this gap. API makes it easy for pieces of software to interact with each other and exchange data.
The two standard options for healthcare apps are Apple HealthKit and Google Fit SDK (software development kits). They are integrated into Apple and Android devices by default and are connected to Apple IDs or Google accounts. They serve as a central repository for all health-related data, allowing users to create a biological profile and store exercise data. By integrating with them, your healthcare mobile app can record and read the number of steps, health metrics (blood pressure and glucose level), nutrition, and sleep data. You’ll need APIs when integrating your mHealth app with any of the existing healthcare environments and third-party services and tools.
For example, imagine you manage a private hospital. An API could allow doctors to get rid of unnecessary work, and achieve better treatment results, along with stimulating medicine innovations, securely managing and storing all medical data.
There are a number of ready-made API solutions for the health sector that you can use for free or for a fee like Human API, TrueVault, DrChrono, Medable, BlueEHR, Eligible, Vericred. Just make sure they are open, have up-to-date documentation, and are supported by the developer community.
Multiple APIs integration is not an easy task. Sometimes it’s needed not only to perform a flawless API integration but to refine their logic to get the most out of the app’s UX. For example, during the development of one of our projects, we made some changes to the existing API so that the application would restart with a user already logged in contrary to the original settings.
Multiple devices and channels
Consider in advance whether your app will need a whole ecosystem to fulfill your business needs. Think about your target audience hardware (desktop, tablets, smartphones) and its specifics. The way users interact with each platform may differ. For example, smartphone users prefer quick information access and short texts. Medical clinic workers would rather work with tablets.
These points may help you make a better decision:
- The budget you are working with.
- How fast you want the app to be developed.
- Your objectives in developing the app and the features you need to achieve those objectives.
- The experience you want to convey with the app.
- Whether you plan to develop the app in-house or outsource development.
When developing the My Movies movie collection app, our idea was to make it cross-platform to the fullest so that a user would be able to collect, filter and search movies using any kind of iOS or Android device, including Macs and smart devices like Apple TV.
Thorough testing of your healthcare app before launch is essential to avoid as many errors as possible. You need to have a clear picture of how well your app performs in regard to cross-platform support, security, regulation compliance, and scalability.
Although meticulous testing procedures should be performed on any type of application, with medical and health-related apps in general this point is especially important. Releasing a healthcare mobile solution without proper testing can lead to serious consequences including heavy monetary penalties. For example, HIPAA fines can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation.
Make sure you test the following aspects:
- Data security.
- Data privacy and confidentiality.
Design and accessibility
Flaws with app design and architecture and confused logic can not only give a bad impression of your business but cause real harm in the case of medical solutions. If pressing a wrong CTA on a regular online store app may result in putting the wrong product into the basket, incorrect actions in the medical app can lead to the incorrect filling of the patient fields at the least, which can significantly complicate the work with data. On the other hand, a well-thought-out interface helps to quickly and easily establish communication between a medical professional and a patient, saving their time by optimizing the storage and use of data.
That is why it’s so important for medical applications what color this or that CTA is, where it is located, and what it calls for.
A couple of general points on design:
- Simplicity. The product must be easily understandable. This includes the basic tenets of any good design — ease of navigation, quick start and response, and a consistent and predictable UX.
- Perception. Prioritize the clarity of the product and its UI. Whether it’s contrast, font size, or the correct, well-placed labels for the CTAs.
What’s more, healthcare solutions are ones that have the highest probability of being used by people with disabilities. Accessibility and inclusivity are the concepts of making digital content adapted for people with various kinds of disabilities from blindness and deafness to mental and physical ones.
Maintenance and support
The app development journey doesn’t end at the moment of launch but extends beyond. Maintenance, support, and scalability are important factors that you need to keep in mind and plan for when developing a healthcare mobile application.
In order to succeed in the competitive healthcare market, collecting customer feedback and incorporating it in future iterations of your app is crucial. The long-term nature of development suggests the development of a rewarding partnership with an experienced healthcare app development company rather than relying on a one-time partner.
A mobile application in the field of medicine creates a means of interaction between a patient and a doctor and solves a number of problems for the owner of a healthcare business:
- It increases staff efficiency.
- It increases customer loyalty.
- It saves everybody’s time.
- It raises patient awareness.
But whether you already own a healthcare business or not, what you get by ordering a mobile application for your business is a new tool for additional income. Now is the best time to tap into mobile healthcare opportunities.
For all the time we have been in the mobile app development market, we have helped dozens of clients in the development of applications and websites that brought them additional customers and profits. We offer you the best expertise we have in the healthcare industry as well as from other industries that can strengthen your product and bring additional value. Don’t hesitate to contact us.
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The mobile healthcare industry is changing before our eyes. How to stay on top of the game and benefit from market tendencies? In the next article, we are going to cover the subject of healthcare app development trends.