Despite increase in mHealth apps, functionality is problematic

There currently are 165,000 mobile health apps, compared to 43,000 in 2013, but nearly half of all downloads are generated by just 36 apps, according to a report unveiled last week by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Forty percent of all mHealth apps have seen fewer than 5,000 downloads.

The report states 26,864 apps are directly related to patient health and treatment, yet more than half boast single functionality and have limited value in enhancing healthcare outcomes. That finding is similar to the initial mHealth app report IMS conducted in 2013.

Nearly 25 percent of the 165,000 apps--which include both iOS and Android options--focus on disease treatment management; two thirds, meanwhile, focus on wellness and fitness. Developers also are creating innovative data features, with 1 in 10 apps boasting device and sensor integration.

Yet there is a long road ahead for apps to becoming a completely integrated component of healthcare, according to Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute.

"We are seeing some progress, but it's still clear that the majority of apps have single functionality," Aitken said during a media call on the study's findings.

App obstacles will be eliminated as providers increasingly address the hurdles, Aitken said, by building trusted platforms for apps curation and assessment, practical reimbursement models and propelling interoperability.

"We still have a long way to go, especially in creating more connectivity between apps and clinical information systems," Aitken told FierceMobileHealthcare in an email interview.

The top hurdle on the consumer side is trying to determine which app is best, given the immense choice, Aitken said. The vast number, while encouraging on the developer side, presents unique challenges, as it creates an intimidating environment for the consumer. It also limits mechanisms for care providers and physicians when it comes to assessing accuracy, efficacy and appropriateness for patients, he said.

"The biggest hurdle for a patient [or a physician] is sifting through the 165,000 apps to find the one that will be useful to them," Aitken said, noting more platforms for curating and evaluating apps are starting to help in the process. 

That's a critical issue, given that patients are much more likely to use and adhere to an mHealth app if prescribed by a physician. The study states 30-day retention rates for apps prescribed by a healthcare professional are 10 percent higher than those self-selected by patients. For prescribed fitness apps, the retention rate is 30 percent higher.

Another weak spot is the lack of evidence supporting the efficacy of mHealth apps, notes the IMS report, as most app research has focused on usage and not effectiveness. Yet Aitken said he believes the scenario will change given momentum in observational studies and clinical trials, especially those focused on chronic disease, cardiovascular treatment and mental healthcare. The study notes the number of clinical trials incorporating mHealth apps has more than doubled since 2013, from 135 to 300.

For more information:
- check out the report

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