Researchers: Current health app reviews useless for users, providers

Healthcare app reviews aren't trustworthy for patients or caregivers, and consumers are best off relying on personal and clinical judgment when choosing an app to use, according to a new study.

Published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the study targeted best approaches for evaluating depression and smoking cessation apps. Researchers determined a wide variation in reliability, especially concerning effectiveness, performance and ease of use.

The authors, from Harvard Medical School, Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, the University of California Davis Medical School and consultant Payer+Provider Syndicate, advise consumers to conduct their own assessments while taking into account feedback and reviews.

"Providers should be cautious when considering reviews, as the findings suggest that providers often do not assign the same ratings to apps," corresponding author Adam Powell, Ph.D. (pictured), president of Payer+Provider Syndicate, tells FierceMobileHealthcare in an email. "These findings suggest that mHealth app reviews should be used cautiously, especially if they rely upon measures which have not been validated."

The lack of reliability, Powell says, could drive consumers away from what may be valuable tools or encourage them to use tools that don't do a good job.

"When ratings are unreliable, there is the chance that consumers are being needlessly discouraged from using some apps and unjustifiably encouraged to use others," he says. However, he also notes issues such as security, such as in the National Health Service's Health Apps Library, which was found to contain apps that were sharing unencrypted information. 

But there may soon be progress regarding app verification in Europe. A working group representing citizens, research and industry organizations will kick off an effort in March to develop guidelines for verifying mHealth app data.

In the U.S., there is no formal review or evaluation process for mobile health apps in the public or the private sectors. However, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced late last year that it will begin issuing reviews of connected medical devices, mHealth services and apps researched by Harvard University physicians and experts from MIT's Hacking Medicine Institute.

The lack of oversight doesn't worry Powell. He said he has consistently advocated for review by non-governmental sources. He believes automated and handcrafted reviews are the best strategy.

"We are in the early years of developing quality measures, and more effort is needed," he says.

For more information:
- read the study