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Mobile health apps - still a novelty?

There are thousands of mobile health apps, but they've yet to live up to their potential

Mobile health apps 

Apps are ubiquitous in our digital lives, and health apps, whose numbers can be counted in the thousands, are part of the mobile mainstream.

But while mobile health app development is commonplace, their usability places them at the novelty end of the scale, according to a new report.

IMS Health surveyed all the apps classified as 'health and fitness' or 'medical' in the US, English-language version of the iTunes Store in June. Isolating those considered to have real health benefits and to be aimed at patients or the public they were left with a core pool of just over 16,000.

Commenting on those the report said: “The vast majority of available apps have limited functionality or evidence of value in advancing healthcare provision and outcomes.”

Not mincing their words the authors concluded most available health apps are “simple in design and do little more than provide information”.

Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, said: “The movement toward digital therapeutics is clear. Mobile health apps have the potential to drive a disruptive shift in patient engagement and healthcare delivery.

“Harnessing the power of apps has become a focal point of innovation, yet barriers remain to their broad and systematic use by providers and patients.”

Illustrating the scale of the challenge the report notes that downloads, and use, of health apps is limited - with over 50 per cent downloaded fewer than 500 times.

The report recognised pharma companies as one type of healthcare app developer, alongside retailers, national health systems, insurance companies, small businesses and individuals, but the industry isn't the main focus of the report.

But there are some useful lessons in the report for pharma, not least that currently available apps don't address the greatest areas of need in healthcare - patients who are facing multiple chronic diseases and are typically over the age of 65.

The study, Patient Apps for Improved Healthcare: From Novelty to Mainstream, also highlights four areas that must be addressed if health app development is to progress:

• Payers and providers, as well as regulators and policymakers need to recognise the role apps can play in healthcare

• Security and privacy guidelines and assurances must be established among providers, patients and app developers

• There needs to be a systematic evaluation of apps to inform their appropriate use

• Apps must be effectively integrated with other aspects of patient care.

There are nascent efforts to evaluate health apps. In the US, an online market for certified health and wellness apps called Go You Cigna Marketplace was launched in September. Even Apple itself has done some (less certified) work in this area.

Meanwhile, last year a first-of-its-kind app directory was launched for European patients and in March the UK's NHS England launched a library of health apps, presenting details of around 70 it has judged to be clinically safe for patients. But in terms of the new survey, 70 apps is a drop in the ocean, and there's a lot more work to be done.

12th November 2013

From: Marketing, Healthcare

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