An app a day keeps the doctor away

When all you need is a medical certificate to show your boss the Friday you took off work was for illness - not a long weekend - hunting for a doctor who can fit you in is the last thing you want to do.

Particularly just for a piece of paper or an urgent prescription.

But it is a familiar scenario, with the 2012 Menzies-Nous Australian Health Survey finding that 30 per cent of Australians wait more than three days to get an appointment with their doctors. Half of us struggle to find a doctor after hours.

But the combination of convenience and connectivity has seen a range of smartphone apps explode onto the market to help frustrated consumers. These include 1stAvailable, an all-hours booking service that claims to find the soonest available appointment at a doctor's surgery closest to the patient.

And in October, the federal Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, launched an internet directory that shows the addresses, opening times and phone numbers of GP clinics, pharmacies, emergency departments and hospitals in towns and cities across Australia.

Called the National Health Services Directory, the app particularly targets patients searching for healthcare in unfamiliar areas because they have moved houses or are travelling.

But have all these apps that allow us to pick and choose mean we are less loyal to doctors than we used to be? And is the traditional relationship with the family GP, already threatened by the advent of the medical centre, now a thing of the past?

With websites such as yourdiagnosis.com and WebMD Symptom Checker now being used by patients wanting to plug their symptoms into a box to get a quick diagnosis and treatment recommendation, some are avoiding going to a doctor altogether.

The chief executive officer of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia, Carol Bennett, says all of these apps and websites are positive for consumers. She says it is not realistic to expect patients to see a doctor every time they get sick.

''I think it is patronising to tell consumers not to use Google searches or phone apps to look up their symptoms and we know about 50 per cent of Australians are doing so,'' she said.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

''Instead of telling patients to stop self-diagnosing, governments should be providing better, reputable apps and websites so when consumers do make a choice to turn to the internet, they are getting the best information possible.''

The cost of seeing a doctor, as well as waiting times and long work hours, means using apps, websites and other technology are legitimate and helpful options, Ms Bennett says.

''Consumers can make informed decisions about who they will see, and can decide if it is even in their best interest to see someone at all,'' she says.

''The health sector needs to grasp this and, slowly, it is. Just this week an app was launched that allows people to go online, search for a doctor and have a Skype consultation with them. Some people just need a quick consult or a script filled.''

The president of the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, Brian Owler, says self-diagnosis through Google and phone apps is not necessarily a problem, because both patients and GPs are increasingly time-poor.

''GPs are less available compared with what they used to be and it is much harder to schedule in an appointment now compared with 20 years ago,'' Associate Professor Owler says.

''So while technology helps in helping patients find available doctors, I think it is more lifestyles than technology itself that has changed the doctor-patient relationship somewhat.''

He does not believe the use of websites and apps to self-diagnose is necessarily an issue because he believes patients mostly use them for minor ailments.

''Most patients are pretty sensible and will know there is no substitute for their family doctor in terms of being able to be properly examined and receive a clear diagnosis when they are more seriously ill,'' he said.

''But any tool that allows patients to have more information about their condition and health care, we're generally quite supportive of.''

Although there are plenty of legitimate healthcare apps now available, a lecturer with the Faculty of Medicine at Melbourne's Monash University, Juanita Fernando, says a growing number of health software developers are creating apps with just one goal: identity theft.

''Medical information theft is the fastest growing area of cybercrime in Australia,'' Dr Fernando said. Her research centres on medical and information security.

''With some of these apps, patients enter their names, addresses and phone numbers and SMS information is easily intercepted. Medical apps can be so rich with information about people - and that is big business.''

While much focus has been placed on electronic records for patients and the responsibility of doctors and clinicians to keep that information secure, Dr Fernando says patients are often downloading health apps and failing to read the fine-print about how their information can be used.

''Once you install the app, you have to authorise access and one of the elements in the fine print of some of these apps is accessing the content of SMS messages and address-book information.

''So while the benefits of these apps are handy for people to use, patients need to be aware of what they're risking when they disclose information to third parties.

''And we're not talking about cyber criminals of the olden days when it's a 14-year-old hacker sitting in a back room. I would say many of these apps are developed by international, multi-million-dollar organisations not running within the confines of Australian privacy laws.''

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop