Most mHealth apps aren't effective for chronic conditions

An explosion of new mobile health apps offers consumers an unprecedented level of choice, but clinical utility is still lacking for those with chronic conditions.

Although there is a rapidly growing market of mHealth apps targeting high-cost, high-need health conditions, the majority of those apps are unable to go beyond a basic level of patient engagement that would be clinically effective in helping consumers manage specific chronic illnesses, according to a study published in the December issue of JAMA.

Of the 137 mobile health apps evaluated by researchers targeting illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, arthritis, and depression and bipolar disorder, very few offered functionalities like providing guidance based on user-entered information or rewarding behavior changes. Researchers also discovered that user ratings offer a poor indication of the apps clinical impact, an indication that patients and clinicians value certain functionalities differently, and echoing previous findings that app reviews aren’t trustworthy.

Involving both clinicians and patients in usability ratings and tailoring app recommendations based on patient needs would improve development and help target the best apps for specific illnesses. Researchers urged policymakers to improve data security within mobile apps, and require basic mechanisms to identify critical health events. In November, the American Medical Association released new mHealth guidelines emphasizing safety and care coordination.  

“Overall, we believe that the results we present suggest that the marketplace of mHealth apps targeting high-need, high-cost populations is maturing and is diverse enough that medical professional societies and patient advocacy groups should give serious thought to how apps may be used to benefit specific patients,” researchers wrote. “Still, there are many gaps in the apps and substantial room for improving them.”

Researchers have previously found that despite the growing potential for mHealth apps to assist those with high-need, high-cost conditions, most don’t offer much value, and some vulnerable patient populations have called mHealth apps burdensome and useless. Other studies have highlighted the need for improved privacy and security and better consumer usability.