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Govt looks set to join holistic health app trend

The New Zealand Government may be the latest entrant in the trend of holistic health apps which digitise healthcare in the age of Covid-19, Marc Daalder reports

Can an app a day keep the doctor away?

That's the idea, at least for some members of a new class of health apps that could replace some - but not all - of the functions our GPs and pharmacists usually serve.

Holistic health apps are having a moment in New Zealand and abroad. Last week, Sharecare, an overseas health and wellness app which synthesises information about your health into a simple number - your body's "RealAge", as opposed to how old you actually are - launched in New Zealand, with the help of Fidelity Life insurance.

Now, the Government also seems set to get in on the trend, with Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield saying any official contact tracing app will likely come with some of these functionalities enabled as well.

"One of the other things we’re thoughtful about is we would like to think about what we have seen through the Covid-19 response from the health system, is some quite significant changes in the way that care is delivered to people through virtual means," he said during a press conference on Wednesday.

"What we’re really interested in is thinking, if there is a role for an app, that it’s not just around contact tracing but it may have some potential longer-term benefits for people in terms of access to information - their information about their health - and enabling them to take better care of themselves and their whanau."

This is part of the promise of holistic health apps, Fidelity CCO Pete Doherty told Newsroom. People who might shy away from the doctor due to time or financial constraints can receive basic services and information about their health through an app.

A survey conducted by Fidelity and Sharecare during the waning days of the Level 4 lockdown also found millennials - the demographic most likely to download and use a holistic health app - were more likely than others to admit to eating less healthily during the lockdown, drinking and smoking more, exercising and sleep less and to feel concerns around the impact of Covid-19 on their jobs and their savings.

"I think it's much easier to get that basic information about how you're doing from your smartphone," Doherty said.

Another major issue for these apps is privacy, particularly when one's medical information is involved. A late April survey of New Zealanders' attitudes towards contact tracing apps found that 62 percent of smartphone owners would download such an app.

However, when asked for concerns that might stop them downloading a contact tracing app, 62 percent said privacy was their chief worry.

There are, of course, ways to ameliorate these sorts of concerns. Encrypting the data is one option, as is - for a Government app - an instruction not to share the data with other Government agencies.

Despite being involved with the launch of Sharecare in New Zealand, Fidelity isn't using the medical information it gathers to price or offer different insurance plans. Doherty's position is simple: The more effective the app in keeping people healthy, the better off Fidelity ends up.

The life insurance company is also giving members access to premium benefits to the otherwise free app, which has globally been downloaded more than half a million times on Android. Information for Apple downloads was not available.

How the Government might compete with private-sector efforts like Sharecare remains yet to be seen. However, it does have some experience with digital healthcare through efforts like the Lowdown and SPARX, which serve young people looking for mental health help.

The Government also operates an SMS-based free counselling service, 1737.

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