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Social Apps and Healthcare

They’re apps that we probably all have on our phones — or at least maybe our children or grandchildren do. So what do WhatsApp, Facebook, and Pokemon Go have to do with healthcare? 

More than you probably realize.

Believe it or not, each of these three apps have been featured in recent articles about their potential use in healthcare settings. And while some of these suggestions are aspirational, many are practical and indeed already in use in healthcare both in the United States and abroad.

WhatsApp

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to mobile messaging in healthcare is encryption. In other words, ensuring that the messages you’re sending cannot be intercepted as it is transmitted from one device to another. (This is the same concern with email and any other digital messaging apparatus, including electronic medical records.) Protecting the privacy of patient information is of utmost importance.

Which is why the recent announcement that WhatsApp, the popular messaging app, is adopting end-to-end encryption is particularly fascinating.

The app, which is owned by Facebook but more widely used in countries other than the United States, adopted encryption in April. According to a recent article in Fortune magazine (http://fortune.com/2016/08/25/whatsapp-encryption-doctors-healthcare-hipaa/), nearly nine out of 10 doctors in Brazil are using WhatsApp to communicate with their patients. It’s also “played a key role in tracking the country’s Zika virus outbreak.”

“While WhatsApp doesn’t market itself specifically for health care, it’s just as HIPAA-complient as other doctor-specific apps — if not more so — if used properly,” writes Jen Wieczner in the article.

The other big thing here — WhatsApp is a free download, which makes it accessible to anyone who has a smartphone or tablet device.

Facebook 

A recent article in MedCityNews (http://medcitynews.com/2016/01/facebook-healthcare-ambitions-4-areas-to-watch-in-2016/) highlighted several different ways that the healthcare industry is using or could potentially use one of the most popular social networks to its benefit.

The biggest potential at this point is the ability to create patient communities. The ability for patients being treated at the same facility for the same condition to be able to network with each other and rehabilitate together has great potential.

Using Facebook for studies and testing is also a strong option. The article highlights a Facebook app created by researchers at the University of Michigan to perform genetic testing through questions. And an organization called SocialBlood hopes to turn Facebook “into the largest blood bank.”

Pokemon Go

Yes, even the app that took this summer by storm has potential healthcare applications. According to an article in HealthLeadersMedia (http://www.healthleadersmedia.com/marketing/hospitals-use-pokemon-go-pain-management-mobility), two hospitals have been using the app in various applications.

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan has been using the app to help encourage its young patients to get out of bed.

Meanwhile, Harborview Medical Center in Seattle has been using the app to not only get its Burn Center patients moving, but to help with pain management.

“Our challenge is to find something that’s more stimulating and engaging than pain they’re experiencing,” said Shelley Weichman, an attending psychologist at the facility, “so something like virtual reality that’s new or Pokemon Go that’s new, it’s more exciting and takes attention away from the pain.”