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New smartphone apps could cut your medical bills

Analyst says 'incredible range of options' coming with wearable health care options

What if your next doctor's visit could happen by smartphone from anywhere in the world? It could happen sooner than you think, says Nathaniel Sillin, who directs Visa's financial education programs.

With many of us being hit with extraordinary hikes in our health insurance premiums because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), telemedicine (or telehealth) through the use of Internet-connected devices to communicate information about diseases, symptoms and other health data could help reduce costs.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is driving innovators in health care and technology to develop apps and devices that offer greater access to health care products and services at a lower cost. In fact, the global telehealth market is expected to grow from $440.6 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion by 2018, according to Colorado-based research firm IHS.

How could this affect you? Sillin points out though apps that measure everything from your daily walk or run to your heart rate are already available, an incredible range of options are coming. Here are some of the current and future product development trends in smartphone and wearable health care that Sillin sees ahead:

Physical activity and vitals tracking

While many major health systems and hospitals allow you to download apps that let you schedule appointments, see lab results and even communicate by email or text with your doctor, such offerings have no diagnostic value, yet.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released policy statements on what it calls "mobile medical apps" that will actually allow tracking of vital health data for direct interpretation by trained health professionals.

GPS Medicine

Let's say you need to fill a prescription and you want to know the cheapest place to buy it within a 10-mile radius of your office. Using technology similar to the restaurant, movie and service-finding sites you probably use now, developers are considering similar models for medical supply and service pricing data that could save you money in real time.

Diagnosis by selfie

Who knew taking a selfie could help improve your health? This new technology allows patients to take a photo of a non-life-threatening injury or rash using their cellphones. With innovative digital technologies, cloud computing and machine learning, the medicalized smartphone is going to upend every aspect of health care and the end result will be that you, the patient, are about to take center stage for the first time.

Then, an algorithm processes the image, evaluates it and texts back the diagnosis. Developers are coming up with sensors to collect symptom- and condition-related health data, which could mean that in the future, physicians will have a lot more to work with than a mere photo.

Virtual appointments

Health care legislation is also expected to spur use of handheld devices to create 24/7, real-time communication between patients and practitioners for the cost of a co-pay or less. In a 2014 report, consulting firm Deloitte said that there could be 100 million health "eVisits" globally, potentially saving over $5 billion in costs compared to those incurred by traditional physician visits.

But before you start downloading this new technology, Sillin tells us to research the following: Who made the app, and what do the developers really know about my condition? What about privacy? What's in the app's usage agreement, and how safe is the payment, prescription or medical data required to use the app?

Also, Sillin urges all of us to ask our primary care doctor or insurer to learn what they think about using this app? Could using it affect our coverage in any way? What does it really cost to use the app, and how might it affect data charges on our smartphone or tablet bill?

Bottom line, Sillin says, is that the ability to manage your health care by smartphone is a revolutionary concept. But before we dive in head first, learn as much as we can first about the technology and whether our current health professionals and networks support it.

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