The health industry has been eager to take advantage of emerging technologies. There are tens of thousands of mobile apps related to health available for download — everything from fitness trackers to calorie counters to programs that help medical professionals better monitor their patients. The field is growing so rapidly that the Food and Drug Administration now has the power to review the new mobile apps entering the market.
And the wide range of new tools aren’t just about helping people lose weight or monitor their blood pressure. Aside from fitness, there are a growing number of apps offering resources in other areas of sexual and public health. Here are a few things that we can do with the help of our smart phones:
1. Sexual partners can quickly find out and share their STD status.
A new app named “Hula” allows users to easily access sexual health services before engaging in sex with a new person. Hula directs people to the nearest health clinics where they can get tested, collects all the results in one place, and interprets health jargon into plain English. The app allows users to “friend” each other so they can securely see potential partners’ STD status on their own phone. It also has a section where people can review their experiences at local health clinics, letting others know where they’ve had good experiences, and sends out messages encouraging regular screenings and check-ups.
Hula may end up serving as a companion to new location-based dating apps that allow people to find nearby strangers to hook up with. It’s already partnered with MISTER, an app of that nature that’s targeted at gay men, to encourage users to link their profiles. Public health advocates point out that it’s not foolproof, though, since users could have contracted a sexually transmitted infection after uploading their information to Hula.
Hula’s developers — who say that their new product helps “get you lei’d” — don’t see it as a simple fix for the nation’s STD epidemic. “Like a condom, Hula is just another tool in your STD prevention toolbox,” Ramin Bastani, Hula’s founder and CEO, notes.
2. Teens can learn real information about healthy relationships and birth control.
Thanks to a wide range of educational standards across the country, not every kid is learning accurate sexual health information in school. So Planned Parenthood wants to bring sex ed straight to their cell phones with a set of new apps. If these online tools are able to effectively engage young people, the women’s health organization believes they could be the future of sex ed.
The apps are targeted at different age groups. The tools for younger kids encourage them to learn more about relationships, make some personal goals for themselves, and start talking to their parents about sex. Older kids are given information about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The tools are all intended to normalize these conversations, so kids feel comfortable seeking out the information they need to practice safe sex when they decide they’re ready to be sexually active.
It may seem like an app about sex ed is the last thing that a teenager would ever want to do — but at least while Planned Parenthood was testing the new apps, they saw a lot of interest. “When we went to test the tools, teens jumped right in and did them,” the group’s vice president of education, Leslie Kantor, told ThinkProgress last month. “There was a lot of enthusiasm.”
3. Domestic violence victims can get connected with the health resources they need.
A new product developed by Dr. Phil’s wife, Robin McGraw, hopes to provide important resources to victims of intimate partner violence. Aspire News is disguised as a regular media app with recent news articles, so if victim’s abusers go through their phones, they won’t be able to tell what it is. But when you click on the “Help” section of the app, it brings up a page of resources about domestic violence — information about abusive relationships, advice about how to extricate yourself from one, tips for friends who may suspect they know someone who’s experience domestic abuse, and contact information for local shelters for battered women.
There’s also a button that victims can press if they’re in a dangerous situation. If it’s triggered, it will start recording immediately, and alert local authorities and shelters.
“This app does not serve as a replacement for emergency services — in any situation where you feel that you may be at risk, please dial 911 or your local emergency number,” the developers caution. But considering how difficult it often is to connect victims with the services they need, particularly if their abuser has isolated them from friends and family, Aspire News could end up being an important resource for some individuals.
4. People walking around in public can immediately report street harassment.
Hollaback!, an international group that works to end gender-based harassment in public spaces, has developed an app that allows people in New York City to call out street harassment when they see it. The Hollaback! app allows people to enter their story and location so that the group can add it to their database. It empowers individuals to do something about the harassment they encounter without necessarily having to engage with the harasser if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.
Hollaback! partnered with New York City council members so that app users in the city can immediately report incidences of harassment — the data collected in the app goes straight to the mayor’s desk, circumventing the old and cumbersome process of filing an official report.
The app “has changed my experience of walking down the street,” one user noted in a review.