Get an app a day and make a healthy breakthrough, say experts.

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Ever wondered whether you should be using your smartphone for something slightly more worthwhile than playing Angry Birds?

A growing number of experts are saying that mobile devices just may be the next big breakthrough in public health.

“There is incredible potential for using cellphones and mobile apps to engage people about their health and wellness in a new way — to help them take better care of themselves and especially to manage chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure … ,” says Susannah Fox, lead health researcher for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “In a snap, clinicians can use cellphones to communicate with far-flung patients. In an instant, medical information can be relayed out to the field and forwarded to the people who need it. And just as quickly, those people can text back with questions or on-the-ground reports.”

That said, most of us aren’t capitalizing on this potential, Fox says. Pew’s data shows that while 88 percent of Americans have a cellphone and about half of those are smartphones, only 10 percent of us have downloaded health-related apps on those devices, a figure that’s remained stable since 2010.

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Nonetheless, apps continue to proliferate, says Brian Dolan, editor and co-founder of MobiHealthNews, which reports on the mobile health industry. According to Dolan’s company, the number of consumer health apps in the Apple Store has grown from 2,993 in February 2010 to 13,619 this past April.

“The growth is amazing, and it continues to accelerate,” he says. “But a persistent trend is that the majority of these apps are focused on tracking fitness or diet and far fewer are focused on what most people would consider true health problems, like chronic conditions.”

What’s more, the quality of apps is uneven and untested, adds clinical psychologist Lee Ritterband, director of the behavioral health and technology program at the University of Virginia. “The problem is that there are very few apps that have … any scientific backing to what they are or what they say they do,” he says.

Still, Ritterband believes that early research shows promise. One study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that remote health coaching supported by mobile technology, along with financial incentives, made a big difference in fruit and vegetable intake and daily activity levels among adults with elevated saturated fat levels and other bad diet and fitness habits. Participants used a personal digital assistant to record their behaviors, received feedback and advice on their choices, and earned $175 if they reached and maintained their goals.

A 2009 study found that people who received personalized text messages about weight control and other health issues two to five times a day dropped more pounds over a four-month period than those who received materials by mail.

Both Ritterband and Dolan stress that the most useful apps integrate personalized coaching.

While it can be hard to find good advice on which apps are worth downloading, they aren’t expensive and many are free. Says Dolan: “So once you have the phone, it’s not that much of an investment to try them out.”

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