05/24/2011 11:34 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2011

Paging Dr. iPhone? A Smart Prescription for Health Apps

If that device in your pocket once provided only the occasional convenience of making a call from the road, well, of course, mobile phones since have gotten scary smart. Not only can they now send text messages, take snappy pictures and videos and function, really, as powerful computers on the go, smartphones can in their own way help us to be healthier.

Some researchers here in Los Angeles, for example, hope to adapt them so they serve as portable microscopes and remote testing labs, allowing health workers in the field soon to provide HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis tests in poor, developing areas of the world.

In Oregon, researchers working with Intel Corp. are testing a clever way that cell phones access the Internet -- via mobile applications or "apps" -- creating one to help patients deal with anger and depression, employing their smartphones to record their moods and then to be directed to appropriate, self-directed therapeutic materials.

And in San Mateo, CA, some Latino teens with severe, persistent asthma found that an experimental app, in Spanish, could be a "life changer," letting them record and transmit regularly to medical personnel their breathing, medication and other key health information; in turn, they got back speedy responses, for example, praising them for positive actions or urging them to alter their drug dosages or to take other steps that cut down the number of their scary asthmatic attacks.

But for many of us, apps already have become lifestyle boons, letting us find everything from how many calories are in a slice of cheesecake to helping diabetics record their glucose results. Indeed, there seems to be an app for virtually every health concern or condition.

Recent statistics on the convergence of mobile technology and health care are firmly stacked in its favor. The number of health-oriented apps available and in development is soaring; it is estimated there are more than 7,000 such apps available in the Apple iTunes library alone. A recent PEW Internet Project study found that 17 percent of cell phone owners -- and 29 percent of device owners age 18 to 29 -- have used their device to look up health or medical information. The study also reported that nine percent of cell phone owners have apps to help them track or manage their health; 15 percent or so of those age 18 to 29 own them. While these numbers may not rival the percentage of people who play a certain bird game on their smartphones, they are expected to increase significantly in the next few years.

The most common consumer-focused health care apps are for exercise, stress and diet -- areas most of us could use help managing. There's real convenience if, in the palm of your hand, you can experience five minutes of Zen, log how many miles you've jogged or record your daily caffeine intake.

Apps also can benefit your children and family. First Lady Michelle Obama, as part of her national campaign against childhood obesity, recently conducted a contest with prizes for developers of software, websites and apps to encourage kids and their parents to exercise and eat healthier.

But before you download any app that strikes your fancy, there are important factors to consider.

Caveat Emptor: Not All Apps are Equal

Type "calorie counter" into an app-store search box, and you'll likely get a long list of results. How to choose?

Just about anyone with certain computer programming skills can develop an app, so the risk of these providing erroneous information is considerable. The government's role in regulating health apps and tools remains to be seen. So, users must be prudent.

One method to gauge the quality of the app or tool is to read its user reviews. Reviews and ratings are a good indication as to whether the app is worth the time it takes to download. Look for apps developed by well-known hospitals, academic institutions or government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the American Heart Association (AHA). Consumer tools created by such organizations are more likely to provide information that has been reviewed and approved by medical experts.

How Effective are Mobile Health Apps?

Despite the vast number of health apps and tools available, their ability to improve our lives and behavior in the long-term remains to be seen -- primarily because high-quality apps haven't been around long enough to measure a lasting effect.

That soon may change. App developers are hard at work seeking to capitalize on the growing digital health technology and services market, which is expected to exceed $5.7 billion and capture more than 500 million users by 2015. Manufacturers also are developing peripheral products -- such as blood pressure cuffs -- that connect to software on an iPhone or iPad, providing more robust information and expanded data capture capabilities.

Whatever apps you choose, or whether you choose to use any at all, I recommend storing essential medical details, such as any allergies, medications and doctors' contact information, on your phone in case of an emergency. Consider putting a note in your wallet or purse that lets emergency personnel know you have this information on your phone. Many people also plug a key family member or physician's number in their cell phones, filing it in their contacts' directory under "911" or "Emergency."

Apps certainly can provide new options to be proactive with your health. At the same time, be aware of their "gee whiz" factor, and, as with the health information you find online, take what you learn with a grain of salt. Such tools and applications are in no way a replacement for seeing a physician or other trained care-providers. Be smart -- and not just with your mobile minutes and data usage. Many tools and apps may contain inaccurate information, so it's best to discuss how you tap these -- especially those that claim to manage or improve any medical condition, such as diabetes, hypertension or asthma -- with your doctor.