Valuable mental health apps lost in a sea of untrustworthy digital solutions

The mental health industry has been flooded with potentially untrustworthy apps.

With more than 10,000 mobile health apps available to assist with mental health treatment, patients and clinicians now face the daunting challenge of parsing out trustworthy digital tools.

That challenge has only intensified as more apps have entered the marketplace amid the FDA’s hands-off approach to regulating apps and wearables, researchers wrote in JAMA Psychiatry. Incorporating digital solutions and patient-generated data into mental health treatment could be incredibly beneficial, but the proliferation of untrustworthy or ineffective apps has clouded the marketplace.

The two researchers—from Stanford and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—cited one app that recommended hard alcohol as a sleep aid for bipolar patients and many others that collect and sell patient data through convoluted user agreements. Previous research has shown that most mHealth apps on the marketplace aren’t effective for chronic conditions.  

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Google and Apple now serve as the gatekeepers for these apps. In September, Apple issued new guidelines aimed at eliminating potentially dangerous health apps from the marketplace.

Associations like the American Psychiatric Association have also provided guidance through an app evaluation model, although some doctors have said even bad mental health apps are better than none.

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But the authors echoed concerns previously raised by digital health researchers, arguing for a more rigorous evaluation of mental health apps to gain the trust of patients and clinicians.   

“The potential of smartphone applications and connected technologies is not doubted, but to realize such an opportunity we need more transparency and trust through better oversight and a stronger commitment to research,” they wrote. “Finding the right balance in evaluating and regulating the mobile health space entails a judicious review of evidence and dense collaboration across diverse stakeholder groups, each bringing their own expertise and experience to bear on a contemporary and socially important issue."