5 Tips for Choosing the Best mHealth App For You

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I came across an article published on the website MedicalNewsToday.com, titled “Health apps: do they do more harm than good?”.

The story questions why so little conclusive data exists to support the effectiveness of mHealth technology. This is despite an explosion in mHealth development (20,000+ apps in the iTunes App Store), and exponential growth in consumer adoption (500 million users by 2015).

There is certainly no shortage of mHealth critics and naysayers out there. To that extent, the article travels well-trod ground with little new information to add. Nevertheless, several valid points are raised about the state of mobile health today. Perhaps the most compelling question is not whether mHealth applications are effective – but rather can mHealth apps actually be harmful? This is a real issue that concerns everyone involved in the Connected Health industry.

Back in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against 2 developers for making unsubstantiated claims about their products.  They advertised that their apps could treat acne with flashing light emitted from a mobile phone. The article also mentions ineffective fitness and weight loss apps, as well as those designed to evaluate the risk of skin cancer, which produced mixed results. Clearly there needs to be some oversight that keeps the snake oil salesmen at bay, and safeguards the public from potentially harmful “miracle cures”.

Some of that oversight and direction has come from the FDA, in the form of their 2013 Mobile Medical Recommendations (MMR) document. These guidelines help clarify the regulatory environment for developers that WANT to do business within the healthcare system. However, the MMR is non-binding, and does not address applications promoted as “educational” or labeled “for entertainment use”, and therefore not subject to oversight.

With so many offerings available, some confusion is inevitable, and careful diligence on the part of the user is required to assure they are getting what they need. Whether an individual looking for a fitness tracking tool, or a health system weighing options for managing population health, the following considerations will go far in assuring satisfaction:

1. What’s The Point? – In marketing-speak; this might be phrased “Consider the Audience”. Who is the intended user of the application, and what do they want to accomplish? What kind of data needs to be captured? What’s the ultimate end goal? Having answers to these questions in mind as you compare applications will go a long way toward making the best choice.

2. Buyer Beware – It may sound cliché, but that’s because it’s true. Here’s another one – “If it sounds too good to be true, it is”! If an app claims to deliver outlandish results, or if they are asking for access to personal data that feels intrusive, just say no. There are plenty of other options to choose from. Be patient AND be picky!

3. Do Your Homework – In our hyper-connected world, there is no end to the resources available for evaluating a company and its applications. Many developers have conducted some kind of clinical trial that will either substantiate or contradict their marketing claims.

  • Before downloading an app, check out the developer information and any reviews that appear in the iStore.
  • Visit the company’s website for additional product information.
  • What kind of product/technical support do they offer?
  • Do they offer an application programming interface (API) for easy integration with existing systems?
  • Do a Google search on the app and see if any red flags pop up.
  • Check out a third party website like iMedicalApps.com or AppSafari.com for detailed descriptions and reviews.

4. Talk to Your Doc. – The whole point of the Connected Health movement is to draw patients and clinicians closer together. No piece of software is an adequate replacement for a physician’s expertise. As a general rule, it is wise to always consult a qualified medical professional before making any decisions that might impact your health. The degrees of acceptance and adoption of mHealth tools by doctors varies wildly. But what most docs have in common is a genuine desire to support their patients in achieving optimal health. Explain what you want to accomplish with an mHealth app. Your Doctor may be able to make a recommendation, or at least, help discern the best option among the available choices.

5. Make the Connection – Behavioral science tells us that people are more effective when supported and held accountable by others. There is ample research data that confirms the effectiveness of care management programs. Patients who participate are generally more effective at staying on task, and have better health outcomes than those who attempt to go it alone. Mobile health tools enhance the connection between care managers and patients. Better communication, reminders, goal setting, and incentives all contribute to success. Seek out mHealth solutions that allow patients to build a personal support network, and share their health information within these groups.

What considerations would you add too this list?

There is no question that connected health is still in its infancy. But it’s also clear that these tools will increasingly become an integral part of our health care services in the future. With some careful consideration and a little research, there’s no reason why we can’t begin to reap the benefits of this exciting technology today. From my perspective, the sooner the better!

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