The Effectiveness of Health Apps

Michael Weilert MD Health Apps

Various health apps

These days, it seems like there’s a mobile app for just about everything.  Currently, nearly 20% of smartphone users have at least one app on their phone that allows them to track and/or manage their health, and by next year, it’s been estimated that 500 million smartphone users around the world will be using one.  They allow us to monitor nearly every factor that impacts health, including weight, blood pressure, exercise, cholesterol levels, heart rate, sleep quality and even help detect cancer.  While these seem to have some great benefits, there are a lot of people who still have mixed feelings about these apps.

Last year, the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics analyzed over 40,000 health care apps, and discovered that only 16,275 of these are directly linked to patient care and treatment, while others do nothing more than provide information that doesn’t improve patient health or well-being in any way.  The apps that are downloaded most frequently claim to help with dieting, weight loss and fitness, such as MyFitnessPal, which generated 40 million users last year alone.  However, the report from IMS claims that this app’s effectiveness didn’t meet its popularity.  They pointed out that very few studies show how effective calorie-counting apps are.  A study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School had similar findings.  The team found that 25% or fewer lifestyle-based strategies for weight loss, such as portion control and identifying reasons behind overeating, were only incorporated in 28 of the apps, which means that they were most likely not at all effective for weight loss.

These results reveal that many app developers aren’t even including proven behavioral strategies in their apps, and without long-term data on whether these apps work, most doctors are hesitant to recommend them as an effective solution for poor eating habits.  However, not all research condemns the effectiveness of such apps; one 2012 study from Northwestern University claimed that an app that tracked eating and physical activity helped users lose 15 pounds and keep the weight off for at least a year.  However, the team admitted that the app was only effective when used alongside other weight loss support, such as nutrition and exercise classes.

While some weight loss apps are ineffective, others could actually be detrimental to health; last year, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical center questioned the accuracy of four health apps that claim to detect skin cancer.  The team discovered that even the most accurate of cancer-detecting apps missed 18 of the 60 lesions diagnosed as melanoma, having deemed them “low-risk” for cancer.  Of course, these apps state that they’re only designed for educational purposes, and shouldn’t take the place of actual medical care, but researchers are nonetheless worried about these findings.  The amazing thing is that you don’t need to be a medical professional, or even source medical input to develop a health app, which many find disconcerting.