How Apps Can Help People Manage Chronic Illnesses

According to Katie Wilkinson, head of community at Paloma Health, an online specialty clinic focused on Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism, key issues for patients are access to care and care quality. “The average wait time for an appointment with a thyroid doctor is 37 days,” she says. “Appointments are often rushed, averaging seven minutes, and patients often report feeling dismissed or unheard by their doctors.” In between doctor visits, they, like those with other chronic illnesses, are left to contend with fluctuating symptoms, exhaustion, and even depression.

How Apps Help

Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, a biomedical researcher with a background in digital health, faced these challenges as a Hashimoto’s patient. Tired of the one-size-fits-all approach, she wanted a solution “that would improve patients’ day-to-day care, reduce nonessential doctor visits, and relieve frustration with current treatment options.” She couldn’t find one, so she created her own, the BOOST Thyroid app (available for iPhone, and coming soon to Android.) Tabor is CEO and cofounder of VLM Health, a Berlin-based health tech startup. She and her team built an app that lets users track symptoms on an intensity scale, log lab tests and medication adherence, access evidence-based information on all aspects of Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism, and provide their physicians with an overview of the data they input. A joint study undertaken with Oxford University indicated that approximately 96 percent of users surveyed found the app helpful, reporting fewer doctor visits, less frustration and anxiety, and fewer and less intense symptoms.

Like Tabor, Eva Galant, founder and CEO of Hashiona, was inspired by personal experience to develop an app for Hashimoto’s sufferers. Working in a high-stress corporate culture took so great a toll on her that she resigned to focus on self-care. When she changed her lifestyle to emphasize diet and stress reduction, her hypothyroid symptoms improved. Aware that most people can’t quit their jobs to prioritize their health, she developed a streamlined solution, the Hashiona app (available for iPhone and Android.)

With Hashimoto’s, “well-being depends on several factors, including proper treatment, supplementation, diet, physical activity, stress reduction, sleep hygiene, and taking care of other organs,” she says. “Making changes in all these areas without a plan may be too difficult for anyone who’s taking the first steps on the road to wellness.” The app aims to lead users to remission with a science-based, 20-week, step-by-step approach that includes modules on thyroid function, stress management, exercise, and diet, and access to teleconsultations with specialists. As with BOOST Thyroid, tracking disease factors helps users see trends and patterns and lets them rely on that data, rather than their memory, when communicating with physicians.

Another helpful tool is the Paloma Thyroid Hormone Health app (available for iPhone and Android,) created in-house by registered dietitians and health coaches from Paloma Health. According to Wilkinson, “Research shows that getting good thyroid care is extremely hard, and that diet and lifestyle interventions are not typically part of the current standard of care.” The goal was to provide “a full-stack approach that covers all their needs related to hypothyroidism.” The app provides a framework for tracking data, implementing lifestyle changes, and building thyroid-health habits through the use of more than 75 self-paced learning modules. It also features a 12-week nutrition plan based on the autoimmune protocol diet to help patients reduce inflammation and alleviate thyroid symptoms.

The Bigger Picture

Apps benefit patients by offering individualized care in place of a cookie-cutter approach, Sharda says, but they’re a boon to researchers as well. That’s why both Tabor and Galant aim to increase the role of artificial intelligence in their solutions. “This,” Galant says, “will help develop knowledge about the condition based on the thousands of anonymized data points we collect.” To this end, in the evolution of BOOST Thyroid, Tabor envisions “more individualization and actionable insights through building better algorithms, using more machine learning to help detect early disease complications.”

Tabor, who’s given TEDx and WIRED Health talks about the role “big data plays in bringing female health to parity with male health,” says anonymized data can improve outcomes, especially in diseases predominantly affecting females. In the case of Hashimoto’s, she says, it’s essential to be able to rapidly collect “big chunks of clean and diverse data” in order to turn what she calls an under-researched and underserved condition into one that’s preventively manageable.

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