More than 43,000 mHealth apps have limited use, functionality and evidence

A new study analyzing more than 43,000 healthcare apps available on the Apple iTunes app store has found that the vast majority have limited use and simple functionality, with most apps doing little more than providing information.

The report, released by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, also revealed a lack of evidence of the clinical benefits of the apps, without which app use will not be able to move from "a novelty into the mainstream of healthcare" nor realize its full potential.

Of the more than 43,000 health-related apps currently available for download from the iTunes app store, the IMS Institute report found that only 16,275 apps are directly related to patient health and treatment. "Most efforts in app development have been focused on overall wellness, especially diet and exercise apps, and do not address the greatest areas of need in healthcare--patients who are facing multiple chronic diseases and are typically over the age of 65," warned an announcement of the study's results. 

"Apps developed to date do not fit well with the greatest areas of spend in healthcare--those patients facing multiple chronic diseases and typically over the age of 65," states the report. "These patients are likely to be among the top healthcare spenders but smartphone penetration is lowest among this group, with only 18 percent of the U.S. population using them, compared to 55 percent of those aged 45-54 years."

Another problem identified by the study is that the overwhelming majority of healthcare apps in the iTunes store have limited functionality. According to the report, more than 90 percent of health apps reviewed by the IMS Institute scored less than 40 out of a possible 100 for functionality, based on 25 screening factors. 

In addition, the study highlighted the fact that the downloading and use of health apps in the iTunes store is limited. 

"There is a significant skew in download volume for healthcare apps, with more than 50 percent of available apps achieving fewer than 500 downloads," states the report. "Conversely, five apps account for 15 percent of all downloads in the healthcare category. With no objective assessment of the utility and value of apps available, patients and physicians currently must navigate a maze of apps with little guidance."

The lack of evidence, in particular, is holding back the adoption of health apps because most physicians remain wary of formally recommending these apps, concludes the study.

Last year, a probe by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that consumers are being "bamboozled by hucksters" selling mHealth apps that purport to cure everything from acne to alcoholism. In its survey of 1,500 apps, the center found that more than 20 percent claim to treat or cure medical problems, many of which do not follow established medical guidelines and have not been clinically tested and in "some cases could even endanger people."

For its part, Apple has asked a number of developers to release or update apps rejected on the basis of incomplete metadata, and is requesting information from developers regarding the source of the medical information contained in their apps. Apple's actions come at a time when some studies are questioning the veracity of scientific data in claims made by app developers. Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of Cancer Education looked at smartphone apps as a source of cancer information. The study found a "lack of cancer-related applications with scientifically backed data."

To learn more:
- read the announcement
- download the report