Digital health companies are targeting obesity and diabetes, but will it work?

Philips diabetes app
Digital health companies are finding success with tech-based interventions for obesity and diabetes, but many mHealth solutions lack clinical evidence.

Digital health startups that target chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes have been bolstered by new evidence that suggests those tech-driven interventions can have a substantial impact. But questions still surround an industry that is rife with apps that aren’t clinically effective.

According to a literature review in Perspectives in Health Information Management, a journal published by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), mHealth interventions were generally more effective than conventional approaches to helping users lose weight, increase physical activity and make dietary changes. Researchers noted that those interventions have the potential to reduce the high healthcare costs associated with obesity.

But not all digital solutions are created equal. Researchers indicated that smartphone-enabled mobile apps performed better than personal devices or wearables—a positive sign given the widespread adoption of smartphones.

RELATED: Startup aims to reverse diabetes using tech tools

Anecdotal evidence appears to support the data surrounding mobile health interventions. Virta, a startup that launched last month with the lofty goal of reversing Type 2 diabetes in 100 million people, has already published research showing how digital interventions can help patients lose weight and reduce their reliance on insulin. An Indiana couple that participated in the study lost 75 and 45 pounds respectively and eliminated several diabetes medications, according to The New York Times.

Omada Health, a digital health company that is also using data and mobile solutions to guide diabetes care, has published similar results through a partnership with Intermountain. Although physicians are still skeptical about longer-term results, most agree that virtual solutions are critical to the future of diabetes care.

“Developing remote care models is going to be the key if we’re going to have some sort of impact on improving glucose control for the millions of people with diabetes,” Martin J. Abrahamson, an endocrinologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a Harvard professor, told the Times. “It’s a much more scalable model than seeing people in a doctor’s office.”

While coordinated digital approaches that incorporate physician-led support and interventions have shown some success, less rigorous mHealth apps aren’t as promising. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that fitness wearables can accurately track simple metrics like step count, but offer inaccurate heart rate readings—sometimes by as much as 41 beats per minute. The authors noted that more research is needed before these devices can be useful for clinical interventions.

RELATED: Most mHealth apps aren't effective for chronic conditions

The proliferation of mobile health apps has left providers wondering how to differentiate the good from the bad, and research shows that the majority of mHealth apps are not effective at managing chronic conditions. Recognizing this gap, the American Medical Association developed mHealth guidelines last year, and AMA’s CEO James Madara urged physicians to get more involved in app development.