Newspapers and breakfast shows reported this week that patients may soon get prescriptions for health apps from their GP.

Their excitement was understandable. A press release from the Department of Health to promote a showcase event for its ‘maps and apps’ competition had given that impression.

The showcase certainly had some intriguing ideas and apps to show reporters and camera crews.

However, many of the ideas at the etc.venues centre in London’s Borough were just that; ideas. And even for the apps that did exist, prescriptions were some way off in the future.

Still, there was no doubting the enthusiasm of health secretary Andrew Lansley, who said the event gave a flavour of what the much-delayed NHS IT strategy will be about.

“[It’s about] seeing the opportunities. Innovation and technology can revolutionise the health service,” he said, adding: “we are looking at how the NHS can use these apps for the benefit of patients, including how GPs could offer them for free."

More apps than maps

The showcase was the culmination of the DH ‘maps and apps’ competition. This was launched in August to find the best ideas for using maps and apps to help patients, clinicians and managers support and plan care.

The response to the appeal was staggering, with nearly 500 entries and more than 12,600 votes and comments registered on a dedicated part of the DH website.

A judging panel that included entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox and Jenny Ritchie-Campbell of Macmillan Cancer Support whittled down the entries to a shortlist, looking for apps that would help people manage long term conditions, find NHS services, and find general information about staying fit and healthy.

More apps than maps grabbed their attention. One map and seventeen apps are now featured on the DH site.

These include Moodscope, which is currently produced in the form of a website, and which aims to help users to take responsibility for their own mental health.

The site is based on a validated mood test. Users are presented with 20 special playing cards, each of which represents an emotion such as ‘active’ or ‘nervous’.

Depending on the cards they pick, users are given ‘mood scores’ that they can plot over time. They can add notes to build up a ‘mood diary’ that helps them to explain why they feel how they feel. And the site provides automated encouragement and support.

Moodscope told eHealth Insider that “more than 45,000 people have taken the test” and that a “million scores have been registered in their database.”

The site also lets users nominate up to five ‘buddies’ to share the results with and offer support. Moodscope believes the development of an app version of the site is about a month away.

Trackers were popular

Another idea to attract the attention of the judges and the health secretary was an app to support people with diabetes.

Food Angels, a private company based in Newmarket in Suffolk, has developed a Food Whiz app, which helps customers to find out if the food on sale in supermarkets could damage their health – for example because it contains foods that could trigger an allergic reaction.

The company is planning to develop an app based on the technology that will help people living with diabetes to monitor their carbohydrate intake, while also monitoring their blood sugar and medication. However, this app has yet to be developed.

Diabetes UK was also at the showcase, with its iPhone Diabetes Tracker app, which already enables patients to log and track blood glucose, insulin, carbohydrates, calories, weight and ketones, spot trends, and share entries with healthcare professionals.

What happens next? 

Two better-known and more broadly based apps were also at the show. One was from Patients Know Best, which has developed a patient-held records and communications platform that it is now inviting app developers to join.

And the other was the ‘Pocket Health’ app developed by CSC. This aims to provide people with some of the ‘service’ information delivered through the NHS Choices web site, but in an iPhone friendly format.

After his recent barracking by protestors outside 10 Downing Street, Lansley looked pleased to be surrounded by people whose products attracted so much enthusiasm.

“What people have been developing gives me real enthusiasm for the future. This has given us a great deal of positive information and understanding of what people want, starting from what are patients saying to what do patients want,” he said.

However, Lansley had little to say about what would happen next to the maps and apps featured at the Elephant and Castle centre. One speaker joked that a shorter hashtag would help to promote them.

Others said it would be a “travesty” if the maps and apps competition was left to linger without further support. And a creatively names ‘maps and apps 2’ was mooted.

However, there was no firm information about whether the DH will now endorse and promote the apps, or what the information strategy will say about them. So the prescription of apps by GPs remains a distant possibility.