Can mobile health apps really improve patient care?

January 23, 2020

A new study casts doubt on the impact of healthcare tech.

Despite growing interest in the use of mobile health (mHealth) apps, doctors face significant hurdles both in evaluating these apps’ effectiveness and using them to improve the health of their patients, a new study finds.

According to the study, more than 50 million people around the world use apps to determine if they need to see a doctor about a medical issue, while 26 percent of U.S. doctors have been asked about mHealth by a patient. Worldwide, 2.5 billion people own a mobile phone, creating enormous potential for accessing clinical diagnostics and treatment advice from physicians.

The challenge for healthcare professionals is finding evidence of effective clinical use of mHealth apps. The authors report that while a PubMed database search of “mHealth” returned more than 30,000 hits, “our analysis identified only a handful of clinical scenarios where use of mHealth apps is supported by the highest levels of evidence.” Few studies of mHealth apps are registered on clinicaltrials.gov, and many of the apps used in the studies they identified are not available in the Apple or Android app stores.

The absence of useful clinical evidence, the authors say, may be due to mHealth developers lacking the resources to fund large trials before releasing their apps, along with pressure from their investors to quickly demonstrate product growth. Consequently, many  studies of app effectiveness rely on retrospective analyses of data from existing apps. The results of these are difficult for doctors to apply in clinical settings, since app users generally are self-selected, and their outcomes might not apply to larger patient populations.

Looking ahead, the authors foresee mHealth apps being integrated into existing clinical treatments in order to improve outcomes and increase access to specialized therapies. Data from these apps can also enable earlier detection of subclinical disease and support technology-assisted decision-making. On a population-wide level, mHealth apps can improve access to healthcare services and improve communication with healthcare professionals.

The study, “What is the clinical value of mHealth for patients?”, was published January 13 on the website of npj Digital Medicine.